Non-narrative story forms for the web

11 February 2017

I recently came across a presentation I gave in 2009 to a group of journalists and editors on non-narrative story forms (or alternative story forms as some designers at the time were calling them). When I quickly scanned through the document I began to wonder if the research and action plan was not only still relevant but being used on the web today.

In short, non-narrative story forms (NSFs) are any type of news packaged in a format that is not simply paragraphs of words with the occasional photo or pull-quote. Taking the form of infoboxes, maps, briefs, tables, chunky numbers, annotated art, lists, chronologies and tips, NSFs can add to narrative articles or replace them entirely. They’re also not that new, as magazines have employed them for decades. However it’s possible serious news avoided breaking the narrative form because NSFs seemed to lack the gravitas.

NSFs didn’t make the cut into my book on newspaper design, Requires Assembly, however I began advocating their use in 2008 when I saw first hand their usefulness.

A decade ago the Poynter Institute ran an in-depth eye tracking study into how people read the news and how well the information is absorbed. Three standalone news pages were tested, each featuring the same articles packaged differently. The test results showed that readers retained more about a story if a brief narrative article was accompanied by NSFs including maps, timelines and possible frequently asked questions. Each extra element added more context and visual attention to an important news article.

nsf-3up

There were some other good findings in the study. As the amount of text in an article increased, the read time decreased. Different story forms grab reader’s attention, and readers retained more information, particularly with large headlines combined with photos. A briefs component was also well read. Studies like Eye Tracker 07 and further web-based eye-tracking experiments that have found readers scan pages and don’t necessarily read every word. This behavioural pattern drives a lot of web design today.

Today some news sites have gained audiences based almost entirely on the non-narrative form, such as the Buzzfeed listicle, or the news packaging on the Vox.

The web has opened the door to amazing multimedia opportunities, however these often successful interactive pieces take a lot of resource to create and don’t fit into a regular news cycle. (Not to mention that visual stores are special because they don’t happen every day and can standout).

Newspapers very often create expansive features that run in a series throughout a week or in the weekend edition. Since much reporting and editing resources had been budgeted, it is reasonable to also assign a designer or two in order to construct a bigger visual story around the written word. Those same features are now the visual interactive stories popular on the New York Times or The Guardian; the long-reads with photos, video, audio and animation/motion design. NSFs live there quite perfectly, especially in bringing context to larger in-depth stories. But NSFs also have a place among the daily news.

One current example of the NSF is surely the live-coverage The Guardian performs regularly; small chucks of the most current news around an event are shared chronologically, with context and most importantly with summary of associated articles at the top, and timeline of key events in a special sidebar. News is the first draft of history and the live-blog is the live gathering of news and the formation of the analytical summaries. The format works especially well because readers can dig in and out, catching up to unfolding events. Compare that to following TV news which often summarises on the hour, and rolling coverage often has to fill the time. And I’m sure fellow news junkies love it too.

Outside The Guardian example, the Vox is one of the few places bringing to the web true NSF news. Their use of Q&As, lists, timelines, story streams and forward-looking briefs, present the news in entirely different ways that fit better with how we consume media today.

It’s easy to identify other good examples of full NSF packages, but less hard to point out integrating NSFs directly into narrative articles. Maps and information graphics are still widely used to add much needed context, and many articles feature researched related and previous articles on weightier topics. However it would be nice to see examples of repurposing earlier content into background sidebars rather then simply linking to a previous article. Sometimes it is just a matter of highlighting the link to the crucial background article; making the link standout from being an SEO link. After all, most media outlets have already invested resources in creating the original content, it can be a shame the knowledge is lost in the digital archive. Then again in resource starved newsrooms it’s understandable how it can be easier to just let the reader google the answer, despite losing them down a wikipedia hole.

I can find good examples of adding contextual links into or next to articles, particularly in The Guardian and the Vox. Complex stories that have evolved over months (or days) with many moving parts often need to provide readers with background and summarising an ever evolving picture. It also helps to provide the right navigation to readers, the flags they’re likely scanning for.

guardian-rich-link

For example in an article summarising a White House staffer’s three major gaffes, The Guardian includes numerous background links throughout the main article plus additional background promos in the left sidebar. Not merely included for SEO reasons, these articles are good places to help readers understand more. In the second paragraph an embedded link is also highlighted in a promobox (or rich link) with a clear call to action. That seems slightly repetitive and the other two promos in the article don’t repeat nearby links. The rich link is a great addition, however it would have been interesting to have seen the first promo summarising the three gaffes, either in short paragraphs or links to the related articles in the form of a timeline.

guardian-timeline

Returning to my original presentation, I shared a formula for constructing NSFs, most likely based on the previous work of many visual editors and Society for News Design members, who shared the study and their own newsroom solutions.

Non-narrative story form formula

• What? give the basic details & highlights of a news event
• So what? explain why the reader should care
• Now what? detail the next step or likely counter-event if there is one

Example:

What: UK parliament votes down article 50 amendment to guarantee referendum pledge for £350 additional funding per week to the NHS.
So what: While the NHS is facing another winter crisis and is in need of additional funding, government ministers who backed the campaign statement did not back the motion to uphold what many saw as a promise made if the UK voted to leave the EU.
Now what: will the NHS receive any immediate funding? what are the long-term plans for extra NHS funding? did politicians make statements they had no intention of seeing through?

All this is about including context and background that most people can easily have forgotten as events have unfolded, and especially as statements have changed. The journalist or editor with the correct knowledge could fill in the gaps that a reader might have. Below I’ve written out an example which took a few minutes to collect, however I can see spending an hour or two formulating all the details and packaging it neatly. Probably the largest amount of time is spent researching and processing information; much of which has already been done by the journalist. Despite being a designer, I’m no stranger to words and editing.

Finally in my presentation I offered a series of steps for editors and designers to go about building NSFs.

Constructing a story form

• Choose the format
• Edit, edit, edit
• Sketch out ideas
• Pre-design
• Give it some space
• Pair words and pictures
• Create type hierarchy
• Edit again

My original notes from the talk, and the handout I made, are buried in storage; hopefully someday I’ll be able to share more. I hope to return before then with some modern digital examples of non-narrative story forms. Much of the side-project work I’ve done for myself in recent years are good self-contained visual stories with information that could be repurposed into NSFs.