Credit: By Gregg Richards on Flickr. Some rights reserved

Journalism has always sought to keep the public up to date with society and topics of interest and before the internet, news organisations had a monopoly on when, where and how the public accessed this information.

Now, the online world is overflowing with information but not all of it is accurate. News organisations' challenge is not only reporting news as it breaks, but adding value to it by providing context to ongoing stories.

One way of doing this is through card stacks, a digital version of index cards for displaying articles, which can serve as an additional feature to breaking news or a stand alone story.

Vox has been using card stacks since its launch last year and Melissa Bell, Vox Media's vice president of growth and analytics, said "card stacks go hand-in-hand with our mission to explain the news."

When readers are often thrown into a story they haven't followed from the beginning, cards are a quick and easy way to get them up to speed, said Bell, as they can be linked to any portion of text.

Vox story
Screenshot from a Vox story which uses cards to explain the war on drugs

"For us, the card stacks have meant packaging our explainer content in more interactive ways, that are intuitive to use. It means we can add more substance to each article we produce.

We start with the big picture questions, and can very quickly get into the granular issues at the heart of a trending news story or an ongoing crisis."

Speaking recently at the News Impact Summit in London, engagement editor Allison Rockey explained that Vox's audience is interested in hard news and updates on issues that are affecting them.

According to Bell, the organisation initially experimented with all types of card stacks, but discovered that "big picture issues" like climate change, the war on drugs and current news perform best on cards for Vox readers.

One of Vox's initial hurdles was finding the right balance between providing enough context on cards and overwhelming readers with information.

Bell said deciding which news items deserve card stacks is still one of the main challenges, but "given their success, [cards] will continue to be a big part of our work moving forward."

At AJ+, Al-Jazeera's cross-platform news service for younger audiences, executive producer David Cohn said the mobile news app uses cards to "tell stories that persist through time".

Screenshots of cards from the AJ+ app

AJ+'s cards are easily adaptable and they can do a number of things: tell the reader the newest information, give context to a story with a graphic or a video and convey the human element through short documentaries.

"It's about threading these elements together to tell a cohesive story, as opposed to trying to treat them all like they are not related," Cohn pointed out.

AJ+ also uses 'conversation', 'debate' and 'quiz' cards, where readers can interact with the story by offering their opinion. According to Cohn, debate cards have the best engagement, as people only have to  answer a 'yes or no' question by tapping the screen.

Last month, a group of students from the MIT Media Lab launched FOLD to help any writer add context to their stories with cards.

As an open publishing platform FOLD lets people "seamlessly add context to stories using cards", said Alexis Hope, one of the project founders.

Screenshot of how FOLD displays context cards beside stories

When creating their stories, authors can embed cards that support elements like maps, animated GIFs and songs from Soundcloud and Hope believes this is what makes FOLD stories "playful to interact with."

"I would love to see newsrooms using [FOLD] in a more experimental fashion, kind of as a complement to their existing tools," Hope added.

Because cards have proven so successful with their audiences, both FOLD and Vox are looking at ways of expanding their use in the future.

FOLD is developing a feature for remixing cards that will allow authors to use other people's cards in their own stories and Vox released embeddable card stacks that publishers can use for free.

"We believe our card stacks can lead to more informed readers, not just on, but anywhere websites are trying to provide a good explanation," Bell concluded.

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