A Thousand Front Pages Every Day

Publishers around the globe who I work with as a design and newsroom strategy consultant are trying to make every single article a welcome mat for the rest of their websites. This desire has become more pronounced as media organizations design their online sites to appeal to mobile readers — the fastest growing segment of most of their readerships and one of the least likely to stick around.

Aftenposten, Norway’s largest newspaper, “produces a thousand front pages every day,” according to editor-in-chief Espen Egil Hansen. They want to make all articles they publish a point of entry — not only for a particular story but for the publication as a whole. That’s why my colleagues and I are working closely with Espen and his digital team on an experimental system that turns every article into an invitation to read more.

The idea, still in the exploratory stage, is to introduce what we’re calling “cards,” a mobile-optimized design intended to emphasize Aftenposten’s brand — important at a time when some readers who share articles online don’t know where they were originally published. The cards also include a headline, a summary, and a link to the story. Whether or not this design gets readers to consume extra articles, it’s important for publishers to conduct such experiments. If they don’t, they’ll never match the designs and user interfaces of the tech world.

“The key thing publishers can learn from platforms is that there is no such thing as a finished product,” says Vivian Schiller, former head of news at Twitter. “A perpetual cycle of testing and iterating is the norm, and it’s very hard for publishers to get their heads around that since it’s so anathema to the way legacy media works. Even when publishers do embrace it, it’s often limited to discrete A/B tests on headlines instead of a constant feedback loop on the entire consumer experience.”

That’s more important than it might seem. My team’s attempts to develop a better mobile news interface require extensive trial and error. And navigation plays a key role in convincing a user who comes to read lunch recipes to then click on an analysis of the 2016 election. Visually, it’s important to entice readers with design that is simple, attractive, and functional. From font selection to color palette, these details capture readers’ attention in a second or less. Such minutiae demand continuous improvement and refinement. Succeeding in this environment requires a new focus on technology.

In another way, there’s no difference between attracting an audience today and 42 years ago, when I began my career: Stories are everything. Editorial success still begins with quality content. But we now have opportunities to discover better packages for it — which lead readers to more stories. It’s a challenging time to be a storyteller — but also an exciting one.

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