Visual content: Takeaways from the SA-UK Digital Editors Network meetup

The Digital Editors Network has been gathering in the UK roughly every quarter since 2007.

Rather a lot has happened in the media since 2007 (if you think that Twitter had barely been around for a year back then, the tablet as a consumer product didn’t really exist, and the New York Times has had three executive editors in that period).

And along the way, the network has built up a loyal following and a reputation as a space where media professionals can share ideas and reflections about their own operations with a real degree of candour.

Digital editors @Jozihub watching - and interacting - with speakers at the #DEN meetup in London.

Digital editors @Jozihub watching – and interacting with –  speakers at the #visualDEN meetup in London.

It is, to quote one of #DEN’s conveners and founders Francois Nel, a “self help group for media innovators”; less a conference than an ongoing conversation among those preoccupied with devising and driving change inside and outside of newsrooms.

Last week saw another milestone of sorts when a group of South African digital editors hooked up virtually with the #DEN meeting at the offices of the Financial Times in London.

The hook-up wasn’t an end in itself. For the South Africans, it was an experiment to test interest in the establishment of an African franchise of the network that might hold its own meetups, with its own speakers and a specific focus on the concerns of digital editors in Johannesburg, and those in places like Nairobi and Lagos (Disclosure: I am one of the people working with the UK conveners to try to make this happen). Cross-continental collaboration and shared events, I imagine, will remain a feature of any network though.

As it happens, the #visualDEN Spring meetup looked at visual content, a theme in which there is universal interest in most newsrooms.

These were some of my takeaways from the event:

#1: Visual content drives conversions to paid subscriptions

When The Sun tweets pictures it gets 35% more retweets, according to editor David Dinsmore. Video gets retweeted 28% more than non-video content and Facebook posts with photos get twice as many likes than those without. Social is a big part of The Sun’s strategy to sign up new digital subscribers and the visual nature of that content has come to play a big part in that strategy. The Sun, which has developed a 20-second video format as one of its niches, also uses video to test content with users and identify the kind of content that is likely to retain and convert viewers

#2: “The desktop is becoming the new print”

With one of the most successful paywall models in the world, the Financial Times reports that 64% of its subscribers are receiving its content on a mobile device which presents a clear challenge to its attempts to create compelling visual content, including video and interactive presentations.

However, the FT’s approach is not about mobile first but about “universal publishing” – being able to develop content that works on whatever devices its readers happen to be using. “The proliferation of screens and devices … trying to maintain separate production streams for all that delivery is just impossible and not cost effective and is never going to work,” says Lisa Macleod, head of ops at

“So the solution for us has been about embracing APIs, API output, semantic meta data, flexible content and forcing, within the newsroom, a sea change away from our need to tinker and fiddle on a micro-level with layouts and kerning, and … paragraph breaks. It means … a separation of form and function and a break with the desktop WYSIWYG fixation.”

#3: Design digital content around the customer, not the device

The unintended consequence of the binary choice between long or short articles, between digital or print presentation, is that it “pits the device against the consumer” according to digital futurist Amy Webb. Webb proposes that newsrooms should think less of response design for different devices and more about the intellectual and emotional needs of the reader and their behaviour at a particular point in time. For instance, if a consumer is driving or jogging, the device might detect this and offer him or her an audio report rather than text.

Webb’s main thesis is that great design doesn’t necessarily equal a great user experience. “This is really about efficiencies and designing for the consumers at the right moment in time. Modern journalism is incompatible with our devices and as a result we have to think beyond the device which modern journalism has absolutely no control over.”

#4: “Cardification

The word is an invention of Webb’s but, as she points out, the concept of cards is quickly becoming entrenched: Twitter has been offering various card formats for some time as a presentation mechanism; Google Now of course now offers all manner of things from football scores to personal reminders as cards; and Vox recently launched card stacks on different topics as news explainers. “The cards idea is a response to smaller screen size and at the same time need for smaller, shareable pieces of information.”

Webb suggests that news businesses think of cards as a different way of monetising content – for instance by allowing consumers to buy a pack of cards. Their application in the mobile space is obvious – the average mobile user uses their phone 110 to 150 times a day!

#5: New ways of looking at video

“Our video stories tend to be one dimensional,” says Webb. What about looking at video as an instructional format, a personal guide for mobile users, as an interactive “choose your own story” format, or even as a payment authentication tool (through facial recognition)?

“We know that people are watching a lot of videos on their mobile phones; we know that people are addicted to their mobile phones. Is there a way we can leverage that growing audience in a different way that we haven’t designed for yet?”

#6: Data visualisation as a living thing, not “a bit of art”

David Ottewell, the head of data journalism at Trinity Mirror, made the point that worthwhile data projects must appeal to people, make them want to respond and contribute to, and want to share the data.

Similarly, Martin Stabe, head of interactive news at the Financial Times, believes data presentations should be “exploratory as well as explanatory”. “Give the reader the opportunity … to find the version of the story that’s relevant to them.” Data projects should allow readers to “zoom out” to show the big picture but also let them “zoom in” to some aspect that’s directly relevant to them (such as seeing how their own child’s school fares in the context of national data).

#7: Keep it simple

“The big lesson we’ve learned from (Trinity Mirror’s data journalism site) Amppd, is that a graphic doesn’t have to be complex,” says Ottewell. “A bar chart has stood the test of time for a reason. If the idea that is being communicated is strong enough, a bar chart is often the best way of presenting that or simply words with numbers that appeal to people, and something they can share.”

Ottewell also asks if all reporters shouldn’t perhaps be capable of putting together a basic bar graph to with their story, and tweeting it. “We all know that if you attach something like that to a story you’re more likely to get a response.”

#8: Mobile requires new skills and a new approach

“The shift to mobile requires a whole new set of skills … and the kind of domain knowledge we expect people to have,” says Stabe. For instance, the shift from Flash to HTML5 and Javascript requires a lot more coding and a different set of skills.”

Since they are usually very labour intensive, projects should be reusable so newsroom don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time, says Stabe, .

That’s quite a common refrain these days. Macleod also talked about how the process of building data presentations needed to become a more industrial and integrated one with a quicker turnaround.

Someone at #DEN had to mention it – and the head of digital for The Times and Sunday Times Alan Hunter did. Indeed, no discussion about big, visual projects would be complete without someone referencing Quartz founder Kevin Delaney from the NY Times Digital Innovation Report who famously said: “I’d rather have a Snow Fall builder than a Snow Fall.”

#9: Get the Editor on board

“If an editor or the top people in your organisation care about can bet that his or her team will soon too,“ according to Hunter, recalling the impact a change in priorities at the top of the Sunday Times had on section editors and writers alike.

He also suggested playing on journalists’ natural competitive urges, as well as immersing a few individuals in digital processes and sending them out to champion new practices.

“Journalists are intensely competitive and if they see one of their colleagues doing something that gets the attention of the editor and readers, they will certainly want to do that too.”

More about the meetup

I need to think less about the Audience and more about People
Visual journalism: beyond data visualisations in news and
A grand idea: a DEN in South Africa

You can read more about #DEN on the DEN blog here.


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