From “cinematic” to “ominous”: the possibilities of online editorial design

Designers from the New York Times and The Atlantic magazine talk online projects, creating “cinematic” experiences and what print can learn from digital.

When The New York Times (NYT) originally ran an opinion piece exploring the murder of four people in California, it was a text-only story. Jessia Ma, a digital art director at the NYT, says that it was not as popular as expected. It was then re-formatted, and supplemented with graphics and animations. The piece, published in 2018, subsequently soared in popularity.

It was not just a lesson in attracting readers. “The piece is a testament that visuals don’t just have to be window dressing or to make things look better,” Ma adds. “In this case specifically, the visuals and graphics are making a lot of the points or the argument itself.” The case revolved around a young black man Kevin Cooper, who was arrested and put on death row. The opinion piece, by Nicholas Kristof, asks the question: ‘Was Kevin Cooper framed for murder?’

Ma argues that the updated editorial design helps to make some points clearer. A visual of a map for example, which moves as you scroll, shows that it was “unlikely” that Cooper could have travelled from one place to another as quickly as claimed. The entire piece – or ‘package’ – also has a “cinematic” feel to it. It looks almost like a procedural investigation, with photos of the crime scene and transcripts from police interviews.

“We were able to weave visuals, graphics and design throughout, which makes it feel cinematic,” she says. Ma adds that this is what the online editorial is all about. “How do we take the best journalism with the art and technology we have to create stronger journalistic experiences and visual storytelling?”

© 2018 The New York Times Company

Total surveillance

© 2019 The New York Times Company

Another package revolves around the issue of “anonymous cell phone data” which is stored and can reveal somebody’s location. 2019’s Tracked aims to show how this compromises people’s privacy and for this piece, a series of animations were commissioned which tie in with the visual language. The writer, Stuart Thompson, also leads the opinion desk’s visual journalism department.

Green dots, which show the “actual locations for millions of Americans” over a series of locations — including the Pentagon, the headquarters for the United States Department of Defense — flood the page as readers scroll down. “It really hammers home this theme of surveillance,” Ma says, “and how creepy and invasive location data specifically can be.” Presented in a package like this also means that there’s an “overarching takeaway” for readers.

The America We Need

© 2020 The New York Times Company

Kate Elazegui, the opinion desk’s design director, says that this appetite for visual storytelling has grown since she joined the team one and a half years ago — marking the Kevin Cooper story as a turning point. It showed the “impact” of visual storytelling, and a new way for readers to think about opinion pieces. Elazegui says that something that appealed to her creativity is how the opinion desks at newspapers can represent the “soul” or “voice” of a paper. “It allows you to do more than just report,” she adds. “The change was bringing in visuals and graphics and seeing the appetite for them.”

Recently the desk has started working on ‘enterprise’ packages, which allow “editors to focus on longer term stories that demand more term”. The most recent example is The America We Need. It’s a three-part piece — divided into ‘chapters’ — which builds a “narrative” from opinion pieces about pressing issues for the country.

Planning had started before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the health crisis gave the project added urgency. This illuminates another issue: time constraints. Opinion gives designers time to think more carefully than news, but it is still a tight turnaround. There were six weeks to design The America We Need, before the first chapter was published. Elazegui says that she asked writers for a brief on what their piece would be about, so that she could prep an illustrator for the pictures that accompany the article’s headlines. This helped to create a more coherent identity.

The designer’s job, she says, is to “help editors think about visuals and organise their thoughts”. Some of her questions before a piece include: “Can we build it in sections? Can we bring drama in? Can we dive deep into it? What are the solutions?”

For inspiration, she looked to the art produced during the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a movement started in the 1930s under Roosevelt’s New Deal to provide income and support for people during the Great Depression. In particular, the murals from this period have inspired the illustrations by Karolis Strautniekas. For the second chapter, entitled Saving Our Cities, a sepia-toned street scene is depicted with typical sights: a food vendor, people on their phones, commuters (all with face masks). The single use of colour – a shade of red – connects a child who is looking at a homeless person.

The internet’s Shadowland

The Atlantic, a current affairs magazine based in Washington D.C., recently launched an online package called Shadowland. The multi-article experience delves into the history of conspiracy theories, Trump’s favourite television network to teenage conspiracy theory.

Caroline Smith, the magazine’s design director, says that the landing site had to be a “story in-and-of-itself, with its own connections and clues”. “The art within the story pages reflect the bending of truth, accumulation of ideas, hidden cues and more. The medium was the message, so to speak,” she adds.

Wanting to create something that was mobile-first and not simply a “typical grid of stories”, Smith worked with designer and illustrator Erik Carter. The result is a “story grid” where the articles are connected by a line, which the reader can follow, completing the list as they go. There is also a “rabbit hole experience”, which is a kind of immersive timeline which readers scroll through.

Smith calls it a “3D history of conspiracy” which is accessed by clicking on a shadowy-looking eye. The reader is “dropped” through the timeline and ultimately ends up on a feature story about QAnon (an alleged far-right conspiracy theory that aims to take down Donald Trump and his supporters).

Inspiration came from a variety of places, Smith says. Among them: a Louise Bourgeiois book, European garden and design firms, vintage posters and old conspiracy tropes. She credits Carter with bringing “the conspiratorial style of graphics and imagery” and the design team with the idea for the story grid and rabbit hole.

Similar to Elazegui, Smith says that time is the biggest challenge; there were only eight weeks from the approval of the concept to the launch of the site which had its own complexities. The grid, for example, has secondary imagery as well as the connecting line. “Those two things took hours of tiny movements to get right and the rabbit hole was a fun puzzle for our engineers to solve in a matter of weeks,” she adds.

Rethinking online editorial design

For The Atlantic, the project is part of a digital expansion. Last year, the magazine redesigned its app and Shadowland is part of a “larger mission”, the magazine’s special projects editor Ellen Cushing, says. Words remain an important part of that clearly. “But so are images, and in recent months we’ve really rethought our approach to art on the site, de-empathising our reliance on stock photography and instead investing in arresting original photography and illustration,” she adds.

The debate between online and print editorial is ongoing. Perhaps lockdown added new relevance to digital forms of media as readers spent more time at home and online. NYT’s Elazegui is adamant that the focus should be on both mediums. Digital “should do what print does really well”, she says. And while we tend to think of online editorial as an expansion of print, NYT’s Elazegui says that the two can spur each other on. “There are things that print can do that digital has a hard time doing, and vice versa.”

Digital can be an “immersive experience” while it is difficult to match the broadsheet “scale” of print. Meanwhile, what the team is learning from digital – ways to break up stories and provide “pace” – can be implemented into print. Being able to do both “justice”, she says, is a “wonderful thing”.

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