Süddeutsche Zeitung’s Storytelling CMS aids visual storytelling at scale

By Wolfgang Jaschensky

Süddeutsche Zeitung

Munich, Bavaria, Germany


How do innovative journalists tell the best digital stories? How do words come together with videos and infographics to explain and analyse the war in Ukraine in a comprehensible way?  How do we use maps to make the dangers of environmental toxins accessible to the reader?  And how can a 3D model help us understand the advantages of Starlink?

Since The New York Times published Snow Fall and changed the way journalists understand digital storytelling, newsrooms worldwide have been creating outstanding visual stories and sometimes sensationally creative data analysis. This kind of story unfolds its full potential on screen much better than on paper. It inspires readers and has the power to lure them into a subscription and to keep them subscribed.

Unleashing a story’s full potential

But even the big newsrooms still fail to bring visual journalism into everyday editorial life. Visual stories remain beacons in a flood of text in which digital journalism still works the same way as the good old printed newspaper. Although there is no lack of stories to tell in a more meaningful way, there is usually a lack of three things:

  1. Digital visual journalists: This includes infographic artists, image and video journalists, and designers (UI, UX, motion).
  2. Software that is flexible, easy to use, and focused on the needs of visual storytelling.
  3. Processes that combine the visual possibilities with the content competence of a large newsroom.

At Süddeutsche Zeitung, we have strived to solve these problems. The three examples from the beginning — war in Ukraine, environmental toxins, and Starlink — were all published within one week and were only three among 50 visual stories that week. 

The starting point for the SZ’s visual storytelling was the groundbreaking 2016 investigative project, Panama Papers. The team realised the standard format of articles could no longer do justice to the story’s complexity.

The team worked on manually programmed visual stories, which were time-consuming and limited the number of visual stories produced in a year. The goal was to develop a solution to help editors create outstanding visual stories with minimal effort. 

Templates within the Storytelling CMS make it easier to format and share the stories.
Templates within the Storytelling CMS make it easier to format and share the stories.

Storytelling CMS to the rescue

The solution was the Storytelling CMS, a content management system designed not to manage content but to allow editors to produce visual stories daily. Today the Storytelling CMS offers predefined templates for various journalistic formats, including reports, interviews, protocols, chronologies, or essays. This allows editors to get started quickly with pre-selected modules and styles. 

The Storytelling CMS also offers an extensive selection of modules that provide various narrative elements offering countless design options.

  • The system has built-in image cropping tools that make it possible to generate the right cropping for both mobile and desktop screens with just one click. 
  • Advanced users can easily include animation files (Lottie JSON) and use the CMS to adjust the speed of the scroll-based animation on each slide.
  • Colours and styles can easily be changed.
  • A unique feature of the system is its flexibility. Developers and designers can create custom stories if needed and go beyond the module selection and predefined design options. This also enables the use of any interactive element.

But without skilled users, the software is not much help. For many years, the so-called Entwicklungsredaktion (Innovation Lab) was the hub for visual storytelling within our newsroom.

But as Süddeutsche Zeitung’s Storytelling CMS made visual stories even easier to produce, we were ready to take the next step: The creation of the Visual Deskin 2022, a merger of all visual units (picture editing, infographics, layout, design), which made visual storytelling part of the everyday production workflow in the SZ newsroom.

More than 40 visual journalists work together with editors and reporters to create comprehensive visual stories daily.

Increasing conversion rates

With the help of our Storytelling CMS, we have been able to scale visual storytelling and published more than 1,900 storytellings in 2022. Currently, Süddeutsche Zeitung publishes five to 10 visuals per day.

The average conversion rate for visual storytellings remains significantly higher than the rate seen on standard articles.

About Wolfgang Jaschensky

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