Back in the day, and I’m thinking more than a decade ago, the Readership Institute suggested that newspapers should write for a busy younger audience that didn’t seem engaged with news. Some editors and reporters responded with quick-hit, breezy stories and alternative story forms, in addition to the usual fare.
At GateHouse Media, we created print formats that were short and visual. They were to anchor a section front or even the front page. Did I mention they were short?
Eventually, we stopped training newsrooms on what we called ASFs (alternative story formats), and focused training on digital. But we hoped people would continue to use them to mix with more traditional stories.
Nowadays as our readers increasingly find our stories on mobile, the idea of the ASF makes more sense than ever, and the digital world offers so many interesting opportunities to layer links, photos, videos and more.
Our analytics have told us that these story forms need to offer context and links to deeper material. If they’re too short or don’t include an opportunity to learn more, readers bounce quickly.
Here’s the thing about ASFs: All stories should not be boiled down into a neat little format. Some stories still need to be told richly and deeply. We need to take opportunities to connect emotionally with our readers. If your story lends itself to a brilliant anecdotal lead, for example, and you have some priceless quotes, and you want the flow of a story, with transitions that move readers into a different world, by all means write that story. Readers on phones or tablets or newspapers will read the hell out of that story.
But if you’re doing an explainer on a complicated issue, maybe paragraph after paragraph of dense copy isn’t the best way to go. Cape Cod Times tried a traditional in-depth explainer on plans for a nearby casino. Despite a high-interest topic, analytics showed it didn’t hit the marks the newsroom expected. So, they produced “a mobile-friendly ASF including all sorts of hyperlinks and easy-to-read information about the new casino plans,” said Jason Kolnos. The new ASF almost tripled the number of page views of the earlier story, many of the readers finding it on mobile.
“ASFs work well to break down complex traditional stories,” Kolnos said.
Let’s take a look at how newsrooms are using ASFs to reach readers.
Q&A on Ramadan: This is a nice little Q&A with an expert on Ramadan basics. It includes links in case readers want to explore more on Ramadan and the Five Pillars of Islam.
The Times uses the Q&A format a lot for explainers. Sometimes questions are answered by an expert, and sometimes the questions and answers are a way to organize complicated information into digestible chunks.
Election 2016: This story about the Senate and how Democrats are predicted to do has a long lead-in with context, then the story is organized by state, listing the candidates, ratings, likelihood of a Democrat winning, then more detail on that state, with links to more info.
Nate Silver’s website deals with a lot of data, so the writers often employ ASFs and graphics to make the numbers easy to understand. If you want to learn about data visualization, fivethirtyeight.com will inspire you.
Five questions with Dillon Tye: This is another Q&A with a person, and it’s a quick way to introduce readers to someone new in town or someone new in your newsroom (which is the case here). Dillon is a sports intern, and the questions are fun: What’s your favorite sports memory? What’s your prediction for the Dallas Cowboys this year? Nice idea any newsroom can execute.
How the commute to work differs around the world: This is worth checking out. The Washington Post is doing some really creative work with storytelling forms, as Nieman Lab recently wrote. From bingo games to quizzes, a team creates ways to allow readers to interact with stories. While we don’t all have teams ready to create our interactives, we can learn from them.
The commuter story takes Snapchat videos and embeds them in this alternative story form that is organized by big cities around the world. Each Snapchat features a reporter who takes you on a tour of the commute, which allows viewers to “ride along.” Pretty cool idea.
How is your newsroom organizing information for its mobile audience? Once you start thinking mobile first, you’ll find yourself creating different experiences for your readers based on the type of story you’re telling. And many of the ASFs you create can translate to print. Just be sure if you have a vision for the ASF that requires some serious design work, you’re giving designers a heads-up.