Credit: Screenshot from Vox.com

Since its launch just over a year ago, Vox.com has gained as much recognition for its explanatory journalism as its new storytelling formats, such as its innovative card stack format.

Speaking at the World News Media Congress in Washington DC today, Melissa Bell, vice president of growth and analytics at Vox Media, explained how the outlet was conceived with the idea of thinking about "a different style of delivering news using the technology that we have available to us now".

"Technology structures are the way we create our content," explained Bell.

For newspapers, stories were constrained by column inches. For television, that limit came in the form of airtime minutes.

When journalism moved online, noted Bell, those formats were carried over into the digital world in the form of text-heavy blogs and reverse chronology, where the latest story, post or tweet is shown first.

She believes this is problematic because it makes it difficult for readers to grasp what is happening in a story unless they have been following it from the very beginning.

"You're burying context under the latest," she said. "You're valuing recency over understanding. You're thinking about the what and where, and not the why and how."

Bell, who was one of the founders of Vox.com, said the site aimed to shake off this way of doing of things and think about "the other characteristics of the web that were available to us – not just the speed of digital, but also the persistence of digital, the context that we could bring to readers".

The card stack – which Vox readers can swipe through to see the different points of a story told in different formats, such as video and data charts – was the outlet's first attempt to solve this problem.
Example of a card stack from Vox.com

The card stack makes it simple for readers to choose how they want to read up on a story, depending on personal preference and how much time they have available.

"We want to deliver information to readers wherever they are," said Bell.

The philosophy to make the format fit the story, rather than vice versa, feeds into all Vox.com stories.

This might mean considering whether a story might be better told in paragraphs or just a few sentences, as seen in Vox's daily newsletter which just features "the best sentences from stories".

The outlet actually tested this with the King v. Burwell case – the Obamacare subsidies lawsuit – telling the story in two separate pieces: one which was three sentences and one which was 12,000 words.

"What we found is that, of course there was more time spent on the 12,000 word story, but we had almost the exact same amount of readers on these stories, and we saw almost the exact same amount of shares.

"We need to think about the fact that readers want the news in different formats... and we need to explore those different formats."

Another example of how Vox adapts formats to suit the story is its 28-page piece on pornographers 'coming out' about their jobs to family and friends.

In addition to the edited stories, the team decided the raw interviews were so engaging they would put the full transcripts online.

"There's no space limitations online, so if you want to put 28 pages of interviews up, you can," noted Bell.

The Vox CMS offers 35 different tools and storytelling formats to its journalists, from image sliders and photo essays to specific formats for features, charts and video posts.

Bell notes that Vox's aptitude for innovation was helped by the fact that it is not a legacy outlet with a print or broadcast operation to consider, and therefore "started with a blank slate".

However, she believes the lessons from Vox can be applied to any media outlet. 

Rebuild the organisation

It is essential to "move everyone into the newsroom" so that developers, designers and journalists work side by side and are able to better collaborate, said Bell.

"We're a team that is made up of developers, designers, and folks who look at analytics all day, we have people who are thinking about the social presentation, they're sitting next to each other... they're talking, they overhear each other's problems, they are concerned about each other so therefore they're able to work on all of these tools together."

Communicate smarter

One of the best things Vox did was to get everyone on the same chat system, including editorial, sales and HR.

Vox uses Slack but Bell says any messenger system will do – as long as everyone is on the same platform, making it easier to communicate across teams

"When you have a lot of people working on projects you have to make sure they're all talking to each other all of the time," she said.

Build in stages

"We have to start approaching journalism and telling stories similar to how we approach technology, because we're using this technology to report and write the stories," said Bell.

The first time an outlet tries out a new storytelling format, "you have to allow yourself to take risks", she explained, because you "learn so much when you fail".

"Scope out what's possible, what's reasonable, test it and push it out to the public as fast as possible. And then you learn."

If the project is successful and is used a second time, the iteration should be "much faster" while still taking on board any necessary tweaks to smooth out the process and user experience.

And by the third time there should be "no developers, no designers, there should be just the reporter using the tools as they were built and pushing the story out as quickly as possible".

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