How digital tools are enhancing journalism’s mission

This post is part of our project examining the importance of explanatory journalism. In this post, Terri Rupar, the national digital editor for The Washington Post, explains how new digital tools are helping journalists reach a wider audience.

We used to present people every day with a package of information, the news and opinions of the previous day. We reported and analyzed and shot photos and assembled all that into the daily report.

But the Internet, and the many ways people can come to our information, tore apart that package. Someone reading today’s story may not be aware that we wrote one yesterday—or earlier today. We want to get it right, but we also want to make that information easy to find, and then easy to read or watch.

Our job is not just to get people to come to our articles, videos and graphics but to help them understand what’s going on in their neighborhood, state, country and world. Despite the headlines that claim that this one tweet explains everything, it rarely does. So we try to explain what’s going on in a variety of different ways, adapting to the platforms that people are on or the devices they’re using. Combining what we know with the digital tools available gives us the chance to reach ever more readers and help them understand the day’s events, and the context those events exist in.

Native apps, on phones or tablets, give us the ability to once again edit and produce a package—like we traditionally did in print—with hierarchy and a holistic sense of each publication’s priorities and strengths. Even publications that launched without even a homepage are moving into the realm of apps. Tablets, particularly, are associated with reading. People are willing to choose their favorite publishers, download the apps and sit down—often in the morning and the evening, when they used to read newspapers and magazines—and read an edited package of news. And now we’re watching what will come of wearables, as we already have the ability to reach people on their wrists, sharing key pieces of information via Apple Watch and Android Wear.

Even people who don’t want us on their wrists may be willing to let us into their inboxes, and we’ve seen a renewed interest in email newsletters. It’s such a relatively old form that it hardly feels like a digital product anymore, but email newsletters give publications the ability to target people with different interests with different formats and messages. Our politics staff here at The Washington Post, for example, has a variety of newsletters: the Daily 202, which is aimed at a Washington audience; the Daily Trail, a visual look at the day in the presidential campaign; the Fact Checker, a weekly dive into what the candidates have said; and the 5-Minute Fix, a conversational, thrice-weekly newsletter that doesn’t assume you’ve been following the daily twists and turns. All of these go beyond the headlines in different ways, assuming different amounts of knowledge and desires for different context.

But not everyone is willing to sign up to get us on their phone or in their email. Many articles go well beyond the commodity of the who, what, where and when of the news—but we can enhance that in the digital presentation. Hyperlinks are a relatively old-fashioned way to do that, but they do signal to readers that there’s more to know on a topic and give them the opportunity to click through if they want to know more.

More news organizations, including The Post, are experimenting with ways to add annotations to their articles. Annotations allow us to avoid repetition for regular readers but help people who may be diving into a complicated topic for the first time—or who may have missed a few developments. At The Post, we’ve built a panel called Backdrop that lives on all politics articles but is designed not to interfere with reading, but helps readers see the context of the election that day. News organizations are continuing to experiment with how they can add to the article pages that people land on from Google, Facebook or Twitter.

And they’re also experimenting with how to explain the news on social platforms, in ways that feel native. That’s what’s behind Snapchat Discover, where selected publishers create content for their channels. More organizations are also working with Facebook Notes, writing directly on Facebook as opposed to posting a link to a story. We work on ways to add visuals to 140-character-max tweets—on primary nights, many news organizations tweet out images of their maps, gifs that showed the maps filling in, or graphics that are designed to stand out in a timeline and add to the information we’re conveying in the tweet.

Visuals are key in explaining what’s going on, both on our site and on other platforms. We know more and more people are watching video on their phones, and publishers have adapted, putting subtitles on videos or creating graphics-driven explainer videos that stand out in a Facebook timeline.

We also now can see what information people are searching for. Optimizing for search goes well beyond every news organization writing a post with the headline of “What time does the Super Bowl start?” We can answer the questions that readers have, with simple bullet points or with complex analysis that helps them be better informed citizens, parents, coworkers, patients and consumers.

Because that’s what we do, and what digital tools enhance our ability to do. We can add to articles on our site, or find ways to tell the story differently on social platforms, and respond to readers’ questions and ideas. It’s a continuation of journalism’s mission, with more feedback about how we’re reaching people and what they need to know.