Watch Out! A Cliff!

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This is a story about publishing a piece of digital content, studying the analytics, seeing that something is tripping readers up, and fixing it on the fly.

The piece in question was “Scraping By,” a 1,000-word explainer written and designed by my studio Newsbound and commissioned by The Lowdown, KQED’s news education blog. 

“Scraping By” is a stack: a click-through reading experience in which you advance paragraph-by-paragraph, with photographs, data visualizations, or illustrations accompanying each chunk of text.

The format obviously has a lot in common with slide decks and slideshows. But as with the similar work coming out of Tapestry, Vox, and even the New York Times, the fact that it is designed for readers — not presenters — sets it apart.

We started building our stack technology two years ago while exploring how best to explain complex topics on the web. Unlike our video or infographic prototypes, our stack-based explainers got rave reviews during user-tests (to our surprise, actually). They struck a nice balance between A) giving the reader control over the pacing, B) obscuring the volume of content so as not to overwhelm , and C) remaining highly visual.

From a production perspective, the format also offers up a few advantages: Once published, a stack is significantly easier to update and redeploy than a video or infographic (most of the text is HTML-based). And because the content is so linear, tracking the reader’s clicks or taps gives us a truly meaningful feedback loop. 

Indeed, with every new piece we produce, we obsess over the engagement curve and completion rate (usually around 60%), experimenting along the way to learn more about what keeps readers on board, what keeps them focused

Which brings us to “Scraping By.” 

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Welcoming Two New ‘Bounders To The Team

We’re excited to announce that we added two awesome folks to our team this spring.

imageTim Gruneisen joined us as lead graphic designer. A graduate of California College of the Arts, he previously worked as an associate art director at WIRED and a graphic designer for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  He led the design of our new “fogsplainer,” which you should check out if you haven’t already. 



imageAnastasia Aizman is our second full-time software engineer. In a previous life, she was an art director and a designer for companies like The New York Public Library and Wieden+Kennedy. She is a graduate of Parsons School of Design and HackReactor. She’s now hard at work getting our authoring tool ready for its first round of users.

Rivers and Rocks: Why Do We Treat Explainers So Badly?

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Here at Newsbound, I spend 90 percent of my days wrestling with the question of how to use visual explanation as a point-of-entry into thorny, consequential topics. It’s an all-hands-on-deck challenge, so I’m thrilled when I see publishers innovating in this space.

Lately there’s a lot to be excited about: 

  • The Atlantic and the BBC are investing in the production of animated video explainers.
  • The New York Times is exploring living infographics that grow alongside a developing story.
  • Conversational, Q-and-A explainers seem to be popping up everywhere — some even going viral when their topic leads the news cycle.
  • Circa is tackling the challenge of how to bring mobile users up-to-speed on breaking stories and keep them engaged after the initial noise quiets down.
  • And a growing number of publishers and organizations are experimenting with the highly visual, go-at-your-own-pace explainer format developed by Newsbound over the past year.

But looking across the explanatory landscape, there’s a glaring problem. While the news industry is investing in topic-based explainers, it’s failing to get the return it deserves. This isn’t due to lack of demand. News consumers are as hungry as ever for context and backstory. The problem is in the presentation.

Too often we treat explainers like just another drop in the river of news. They should be the rocks that the river runs past.

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Digital Privacy 101

Over the past six months, we’ve worked closely with SpiderOak and their nonprofit arm, the 'Zero-Knowledge' Privacy Foundation, to explain various facets of the digital privacy debate. So far, we’ve produced three explainers on the subject and, if you have 15 minutes to spare, you should really check them out.  

They were all written before the NSA revelations came to light and don’t really touch on the issue of government surveillance. However, they do show how Internet companies large and small are collecting information about us — data that, as we’ve learned, can ultimately be accessed by the government.

The first piece in the series simply attempts to answer the age-old question: “Why should I care about privacy if I have nothing to hide?”

The second explainer breaks down what’s in those “privacy policies” that we all instinctively agree to whenever signing up for a new service:

And the third installment demystifies “cookies” — the tiny data files sitting on your hard drive that allow advertisers to learn all about you:

Enjoy!

- J.K.

Breaking Down The NFL Concussion Settlement

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If you happened to read our concussion crisis explainer, you’ll definitely find this news interesting: Yesterday, the NFL agreed to pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit brought against them by 4,800 retired players.  Here are a few quick takeaways, gleaned from Mike Florio’s awesome analysis over at NBC’s ProFootball Talk:

- The suit was based on allegations that the NFL concealed the impact of concussions and/or failed to protect players from head injuries. 

- The big question looming over the case was whether it would go to trial or instead end up in the judge-driven “arbitration” process, the usual venue for labor disputes. The players obviously wanted the case determined by a jury. The league, on the other hand, didn’t want average citizens determining the case (what with their emotions and gut-level decisionmaking). With endless legal resources, they preferred the drawn-out arbitration process.

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