Scrollytelling format helps news publishers grow mobile engagement

By Jodie Hopperton


Los Angeles, California, United States


I recently had the opportunity to talk to the FT about how they think about productising new formats by building reusable templates. They spoke about raising the floor — making it easier for everyone to create visuals — as well as raising the ceiling on what is possible. And they do this through a specific model they call 80/15/5.

Since that session, I have spoken with a couple of other publishers about the same thing and the TLDR is this: As you build, continuously think about what can be incorporated into your CMS or tech stack that journalists can use while simultaneously recognising you will need resources to push the boundaries and try things you won’t instantaneously use again. 

Side note: Erik Bursch, senior vice president of consumer product and engineering at the USA Today network, told us on a recent Webinar that some MVPs are deliberately made of “papier mache” as their purpose is to test hypotheses, not to architect for the main tech stack. 

This post is very much focused on visual formats even though someone at The New York Times recently pointed out to me that there is still a lot of innovation around text, too. He’s right, of course. Just think about live blogs, AI- or human-generated summaries, maybe even bionic reading (one of my new favourite things).  

We all know visuals are important, sometimes to illustrate or enhance a story. The FT has a number of stats to show that visuals are important for engaging and retaining subscribers. In addition to this, some visuals such as charts aren’t enhancing or decorative. They are the story. Charts actually outperform images on the FT’s Instagram.  

So allowing journalists to have the means to think about how data is represented at the start of a story is vitally important. Alan Smith, head of visual and data journalism and author of How Charts Work: Understand and explain data with confidence, shared the FT’s visual vocabulary of charts. It’s an encyclopedia of charts you can use now to build for your newsrooms to use over and over. 

The FT creates everything using their in-house CMS Spark. They generally prefer in-house tools as they have more control, can mold the road map to their needs, and find it easier to integrate into workflows. That said, they also use Flourish, as they are able to integrate through an API. Other newsrooms I have spoken to rave about Datawrapper, although I believe this is usually used standalone and there are fewer integration options.

What is scrollytelling’s role in the user experience?

“Scrollytelling” — telling longform stories with audio, video, and animation that is activated by scrolling — has become a popular format in line with mobile growth (and is my new favourite phrase) and is a format that I assumed works better on certain mediums than others. However when I asked product leaders about designing for small or large screens, they told me everything they do is responsive.

I actually searched through New York Times interactive graphics to find some that work better on one or the other. Needless to say despite my conviction this must be the case, I couldn’t find any examples. For you, this may seem obvious. But the output looks very different on each screen, and I was surprised at the degree of automation. Most CMSes seem to make all formats responsive as part of workflow.  

Another interesting note is around metadata and visuals. While metadata can be attached to visuals, it’s not always built into the system. And without metadata, it’s hard for people to find through search. It’s exceptionally important to think about this.

Brian Rifkin, CEO of JW Player, was quick to point out to me that although the algorithm is a black box, Google has good resources on their search criteria (especially for video) and it’s essential to stay up to date. (If you want to dive into SEO, I highly recommend this recent report on succeeding in Google search from my colleague Peter Bale, head of the INMA Newsroom Initiative.) 

So what exactly is the FT’s 80/15/5 philosophy? 

  • 80% of articles containing visual or interactive content are built by journalists using in-house tools (aka, raising the floor for creation).
  • At the other end of the spectrum, the 5%, a dedicated team, builds new formats that push the boundaries on what is possible. These are often big stories and are testing specific things. They’re unlikely to be productised in the near future.
  • And the 15% is that middle spot, creation that requires some input from product or engineering teams but that is likely to be built into the CMS sometime soon as a repeatable format. 

These percentages are loose and more used for demonstrative purposes than actual % of content. It’s an excellent philosophy for product teams that are serious about bringing innovations into the newsroom on a consistent basis. 

Eighty percent of articles for the FT are created by journalists using in-house tools.
Eighty percent of articles for the FT are created by journalists using in-house tools.

Fifteen percent of FT articles require input from product or engineering teams and also involve the CMS.
Fifteen percent of FT articles require input from product or engineering teams and also involve the CMS.

Five percent of FT articles are created by a dedicated team, experimenting with new formats.
Five percent of FT articles are created by a dedicated team, experimenting with new formats.

Debbie McMahon will be presenting more about 80/15/5 framework at the upcoming Product Innovation master class on innovative content formats.

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About Jodie Hopperton

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