Content is king, but don’t forget context
December 22, 2016
One of the greatest benefits digital publishing gives newsrooms is the ability to show the context of today’s stories in ways we have never been able to in the past. In print, there are only so many pages, and inch-counts dictate how much news and background information we can give readers. In radio and television, each story can only last a set number of seconds, which significantly limits the ability to give the audience an in-depth backstory.
In the digital world, not only can the text of a story be paired with photos, graphic elements and videos, but we have more opportunities to point our audiences toward relevant related stories that provide more details about the topic they are reading about. This can take several forms, but I’ll name just a few that I’ve seen used effectively.
- PAST STORIES ON THE SAME ISSUE
This is a common form news organizations should be taking advantage of regularly. If a reader is reading a story about Donald Trump’s latest cabinet pick, there should be links alongside that story that point to previous coverage of either Trump’s other cabinet picks, or about the person he has picked. This allows us to show the reader the full coverage of an issue and allows readers who may have missed previous stories to see that we have been providing coverage of stories that are important to them.
- TOPICAL STORIES THAT GIVE MORE CONTEXT
These types of related items would be stories that may not be coverage of the same issue, but that provide the reader with important details that are happening alongside or surrounding that story. Using the example of Trump’s cabinet picks again, related items that are topical would be stories about the transition itself, some of the successes and roadblocks to the transition process, and stories about the new Congress that will be confirming the cabinet choices. This puts the story in the context of events happening around it.
- NEW STORIES THAT ARE OF INTEREST
This is where you would link a new story from the same day rather than previous stories. For example, a story about your local school system wrapping up classes for the Holidays might be paired with a story about upcoming family events in the area. The two stories may not directly relate, but a reader who is interested in the first story probably has kids in the school system and will be on the lookout for family-friendly activities during the winter break.
- BACKUP DOCUMENTS
This is an area news organizations are getting more comfortable with as technology evolves and makes it possible. This implementation links to full-text documents or audio and video recordings of the item being reported on. A story about a crime would include a PDF of an arrest warrant, a story about an on-going court case might include audio or video from the trial and a story about the president’s State of the Union Address might include a PDF containing the text of the speech. This allows readers to see exactly what journalists are seeing and gives them access to documents that are not readily available to them. It increases our transparency as journalists and forces transparency from sources.
Adding these types of contextual links to our stories allows us to serve the interests of our audience better and keep them more informed about events that are important to them. Unfortunately, the news business is still deadline-driven and stories are quickly put together without enough thought on how to polish the presentation and link the related items we already have on file. The majority of news sites today may have a “related stories” area attached to each article, but most of the time these are just the most recent stories, the top stories of the day, or some form of native advertising. These are good ways to keep the audience on the website, but it isn’t fully taking advantage of the capabilities of our digital platforms.
Two news organizations that are doing an excellent job with providing context in their digital presentations are the BBC and Tulsa World. On the BBC website, related stories appear alongside the copy. In the example below, four stories under the heading “Syria’s War” appear in-line with the first few paragraphs of the story. This gives interested readers more details right in the story so that they can click to get background information, or they can easily come back to those links if they want to know more after reading the article. You’ll also notice that after the fourth paragraph there are links to two more stories on the topic. The first answers a question readers might have while reading the article and the second is a photo essay. While both of these sets of links are found within the content, they do not cause confusion or distract from the story, making this a highly effective way of providing the context of a complex issue.
At the bottom of stories on the BBC’s website, just underneath the sharing module, is another related story box that provides more links and gives the dates the related stories were published. Not only does this show the wealth and depth of the BBC’s coverage if Aleppo, it gives readers who didn’t tune out an opportunity to drill down further into an issue that is clearly of interest to them.
Tulsa World has a different but equally effective implementation of this. In the story below about an activist calling for a local official’s resignation, a link to the letter demanding the resignation is available. Notice the placements here. The document is first linked right under the byline and above the copy and is a simple text link. The second is a visual link to the document found underneath the representative’s mugshot.
This implementation gives readers the option to see the document the story is based on for themselves either prior to or after reading the story, and it makes the source document front and center. This is something more news organizations should be doing. With the constraints of print and broadcast, we were never able to show our work and give readers our source material. We can and should be doing that now, especially as people are increasingly distrustful of the media.
In general, linking related content is good for the media organization and good for the reader. It increases transparency, trust and accountability. It also helps cash-strapped newsrooms show that while one story may not be 3,000 words, the issue is still covered in great depth. We may not be able to hire investigative journalists to write one or two big in-depth stories per month, but we can show that the body of coverage of an issue is thorough and in-depth. We now have the ability to combine all of our day-to-day coverage of issues and events into the presentation of the most recent coverage of any given issue and we should be taking full advantage of that.
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