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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Three lessons news sites can take from the launch of The Verge

The new gadget site features big, bold visuals, room for community, and lots of structured data.

Maybe it’s just the 30-something former rock critic in me, but I keep accidentally calling new gadget site The Verge The Verve instead. But whatever you call it, The Verge’s launch today is one of the most anticipated in the online news space in some time. The chance to build a new platform from the ground up, with talented editorial and tech teams attached, combined with the months of buildup at the placeholder site This Is My Next, meant a lot of people were waiting to see what they’d come up with.

And it is impressive: bold, chunky, and structured, all at the same time. The gadget/tech space has no shortage of competitors, and building a new brand against some established incumbents takes a bold move. Which of The Verge’s moves might you want to steal for your own news site? Here are three.

Don’t be afraid of big, bold visuals

Engadget, the tech site from which most of The Verge’s core staff came, has long committed itself to having big, 600-pixel-wide-or-so art on each of its posts, be they short or long. But the Verge takes that a step further. Just look at the home page — big beautiful images with lovely CSS-driven tinting in the top promo area, then more photos attached to nearly every linked story. Because every story has all the visual fixings, they can ebb and flow as the story moves down the front page. (The movement is still blog-style reverse-chronological.)

The story pages expand the photo well even more and feature page-width headline slots with a nice slab serif, Adelle Web. (Slab serifs are all the rage these days.)

The Verge’s short, aggregation-y posts get a bigger design treatment than most news sites’ feature stories do. (They also carry over Engadget’s highly annoying habit of burying the credit links for what they aggregate in a tiny box at post bottom.) But if you really want to see the power of big visuals, look at one of the site’s feature stories, like its review of the iPhone 4S or this takeout on survivalism — photos over 1,000 pixels wide, bold headlines and decks, structured story organization, embedded galleries, columns that don’t all stick to a common template well, page-width graphics. And check out the gallery and video pages, both of which stretch out Abe Lincoln-style to fill the browser window. In all, it’s the kind of bold look that you’re unlikely to see on most daily news sites; its design DNA lies much more in magazine layout.

That bold look comes with some tradeoffs, of course. While the front-page content is still generally newest-up-top, it’s not quite as obvious what’s new if it’s your second time checking the site in a day. And the front page has far less information density than a typical news site; on my monitor, the first screenful of The New York Times homepage (to go to the opposite extreme) includes links to 32 stories, videos, or slideshows, while The Verge’s has only eight. But that’s okay — while prolific, The Verge produces a lot less content than the Times, and I suspect the appealing graphical look will encourage scrolling more than a denser site would. And each story on The Verge homepage gets a bigger sales push — between a headline, an image, a deck, and an excerpt — than all but a few newspaper stories do on their front pages.

I suspect we’re going to see more of this big, bold, tablet-ish design approach finding its way back into more traditional news sites in the next year or so; you can already see movement in that direction comparing the Times’ (redesigned) opinion front to its (almost unchanged since 2006) homepage. In a world where an increasing proportion of traffic comes from social media and search — that is, from some place other than the front door — it makes sense that the burden of a site’s homepage to link to everything might be lightened.

Layer your reporting on top of structured data

It’s telling that the first item in the top navigation on The Verge is “Products.” Not “Articles” or “Latest News” — “Products.” Just about every significant product in the gadget universe — from cell phones to TVs to laptops — gets its own page in the underlying Verge taxonomy. Here are all the cameras, and here are all the gaming systems, for instance, and here are some sample product pages. (Intriguingly, you can search through them by using filters including “Rumored,” “Announced,” “Available,” “Canceled,” and “Discontinued.” Did you know there were 129 different tablets out there?)

The product pages feature basic information, full tech specs, related products, and in some cases “What You Need To Know” sections. These will be good for SEO and pageviews, and they’ll likely be useful to readers; stories about a product link prominently to their related product pages. (I’m actually a little surprised the product pages don’t take the logical next step and slap “Buy Now” links next to everything, with affiliate links to the appropriate vendors.)

Topic pages are nothing new, of course, but few news sites make this sort of commitment to being a reference point outside the boundaries of the traditional news story. A newspaper may not care much about the Nokia Lumia 800, but they could build their own semantic structured web of data around city council members, professional athletes, local restaurants, businesses, neighborhoods…whatever matters to readers. Most news organizations will have something that completes the SAT analogy The Verge : gadgets :: Your News Site : _________.

Build a place for community

Engadget has a famously active community — so much so that it had to turn off comments entirely for a stretch in 2010 when things were getting out of hand. (“What is normally a charged — but fun — environment for our users and editors has become mean, ugly, pointless, and frankly threatening in some situations…and that’s just not acceptable. Some of you out there in the world of anonymous grandstanding have gotten the impression that you run the place, but that’s simply not the case.”)

The Verge appears to be doubling down on community, though, adding topic-specific forums to the voluminous comment threads on specific entries. Forum posts get big bold presentation too. The same Josh Topolsky who wrote that rip of Engadget’s commenters above writes today that the new site is designed to let “reader voices be heard in a meaningful way…we think it’s totally cool and normal to be psyched about a product or brand and want to talk about it.” He also promises that active commenters and posters will get “special sneak previews of our newest features.”

Will it work out and generate positive, useful discussions (or at least enough pageviews to satisfy the ad sales team)? We’ll see. But it’s good to see some attention to reader forums, a form of reader interaction a number of news sites have walked away from in recent years.

What’s most promising about The Verge, though, is not any one specific element — it’s the fact that they’re giving a lot of thought to the form of their content, at a time when the basics of the blog format have congealed into a kind of design conventional wisdom. Here’s hoping other sites join that process of thinking about their tools and their structures along with their daily content.

                                   
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  • http://nilaypatel.co Nilay Patel

    Hey Joshua — I’m very flattered by your praise for The Verge! We worked hard on rethinking everything about how we cover gadgets and technology, and then bringing those thoughts together in a set of meaningful improvements for our readers. I’m glad you like it.

    I will defend our decision to break out vias and sources, though — we think it’s incredibly important to consistently and canonically show people where our stories come from, where are primary sources are, and how they fit together. A reader who comes to a post on The Verge can immediately trace our steps and check our work against the primary source, since we put that information in the same place every time. It might not be the “standard” across the web, but we think it’s much cleaner and clearer for people.

    Anyway, it’s but a small point of contention. Thanks in equal measure for the compliments and the criticism; we’re always trying to improve.

    Nilay Patel
    Managing Editor, The Verge

  • Anonymous

    I enjoyed your article.  I have been checking out The Verge today and it is a bit overwhelming at first, but it seems like there is a lot of value there.

    Curious:  What would you do different with the way sources are shown?  You mention that it is highly annoying both on The Verge and Endgadget.

    Thanks,

    Shawn Roberts

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Joshua Benton

    Hey Nilay — the site looks great. You guys should really be proud.

    Re: source credits, I agree with you it’s a good idea to be consistent in how you show where you’re getting your stories from. My complaint would be that that admirable consistency is no reason to avoid also linking to the source story in the actual text of the post, which, let’s be honest, is much more valuable real estate than a 22px-high box the eye jumps right over.

    I just pulled up your five most recent stories. Each of them is aggregated from another site, but none of them provide a link to the original story in the body copy. Meanwhile, they do find room to link to three other Verge stories and six Verge product pages. I just think it would be good sportsmanship if the obvious places for credit within the body copy (e.g., “GSMArena reports,” “Engadget has gotten a photo,” “according to CNET’s sources,” etc.) had links.

  • Bob Jacobson

    “Communities” and “social networks” built around gadgetry are boring except to the degree that they insult our inherent sense of what is right and appropriate.  What could be farther from the truth of our times, that there’s too much consumer garbage already and that idolizing it is what got us here in the first place?  There are now five or six global gyres of plastic and toxic wastes rotating in the oceans, seven billion consumers to make it more. Yes, bring on another website to glorify consumption.  How trendy.

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Joshua Benton

    Hi Shawn — You can see my reply to Nilay above, but I don’t have a problem with the source links as they are, per se. What I don’t love is that there aren’t any links within the body of the stories themselves. When they say things like “as Engadget reports” or “Gizmodo hears that” or whatever, I can’t think of a single good reason not to link to the place where they got the information.

    As it is, just about the only time Engadget ever links to anything in the body copy of a post is when they can link to one of their own posts, so they can drive up pageviews and time on site. Just glancing at Engadget’s home page now, in the 15 full posts on it, all that body copy has a total of 46 links. And every single one of them is to another Engadget story or tag page. To me, for a site build heavily on aggregation, that just strikes me as rude.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, I see your point.  I know you are not the only one that has mentioned this issue.  I recall seeing Macworld editorial director Jason Snell mentioning this on Twitter from time to time.  I agree with your point that The Verge (and other sites) could achieve the goal of uniformity in source placement and still include a natural link in the body of the post, when the source is first mentioned.  I end up doing this on my small-time blog about legal and tech issues just because it feels natural to provide the link at first mention of the source, lest anyone assume I am trying to either take credit for another’s work or make it hard to find the source.  Maybe that’s one of the reasons I don’t get many page views :)
    I, of course, do not have to deal with the competitive issues that Engadget or The Verge face.  I have to assume if the practice of not source-linking in the body is driven by the need to increase page views and keep people on the site, then doing away with the practice might have drastic consequences.  Particularly in what I understand to be the cut-throat competitive area of gadget blogs. The Verge would be at a substantial disadvantage to its competitors.  Not that this justifies an improper practice, but it is an explanation.

    I didn’t know about your blog until today, I added it to Google Reader.Shawn

  • Dogboy

    woops

  • http://twitter.com/richyoung Rich Young

    Great piece, Joshua. Design, layout, structure etc all agree. I’m more interested to learn how the Verge will differentiate itself in the crowded field of gadget media with a unique tone and voice.

  • Anonymous

    Great article. I look forward to visiting The Verge!!

  • http://www.withinwindows.com Rafael R.

    The RSS feed omits these ‘important’ tidbits.Screenshot via @longzheng:twitter: http://twitpic.com/79v8pk

  • http://twitter.com/CodyBrown Cody Brown

    Any publishers interested in bringing big bold visuals into their site (like those in Verge) should request an invite to Scroll, which was also just written up by nieman lab. 

    http://www.niemanlab.org/2011/10/meet-scroll-a-new-tool-that-wants-to-de-templatize-the-news-web/#shamelessselfpromotion

  • http://nilaypatel.co Nilay Patel

    That’s a bug — I am pushing to have it fixed ASAP. I hope it’s clear that my disagreement with Joshua here is not about *whether* to link to sources, but rather in *which form* those links are more useful to readers. I think that’s a pretty great disagreement to have; all of us definitely agree that clear links to primary sources are the best thing.

  • http://techin5.com Jubbin Grewal @Techin5.com

    I have to admit. I hated ‘The Verge’ look when I first accessed it minutes after it went live. It looked over clunky, and quite intimidating at first, compared to Engadgets rather clean faced approach. But I’m never someone who gives up on something on just first impressions, and I’m most certainly glad I didn’t.

    Why? Because the Verge is an incredibly sophisticated website that screams information in a nice way. I still maintain the fact that the website is a little intimidating, but I no longer think that it looks clunky. Rather, after using it a few times and reading through articles and such, you realise that it has a simpicity to it that you won’t see on other sites – A way to connect different aspects of the site together, and easily. Everything is layed out there for you to choose, and I’m starting to dig it.

    I have to admit that I may have jumped to the fact the site looked ugly simply because in this day and age we like our websites to be simple (heck even my own Tech website is layed out in a near and clean style). But the more I visit the site, the more I like how it’s layed out (reviews are great). It may take some time to get used to the interface, but I’m certainly glad we have something different and I most certainly will go back to the Verge (although that’s not to say that there isn’t room for improvement).

    Well done guys.

    Side note: Good article Joshua, I enjoyed reading it.

  • http://www.newsecuritybeat.org/ Schuyler Null

    Great breakdown Joshua. The lack of in-context sourcing is annoying, but Nilay’s right that it’s par for the course for tech blogs. And there are worse offenders: if I had a nickle for every time I read an article from a major newspaper about a “new study,” with no mention of title, authors, or date published, much less a link to it…

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Joshua Benton

    True, there are some other tech/gadget blogs that aren’t good on this point, but some that are. I just looked at some of The Verge’s/Engadget’s competitors and clicked on the first non-completely-original story I saw.

    CNET: links directly to a Digitimes story in the first sentence.

    TUAW: two external links in the body copy, including one linking to a CNET story on the words “told CNET.”

    Ars Technica: two external links in the body copy, including one “As noted by the Wall Street Journal.”

    Wired’s Gadget Lab: More Engadget-style, external link in a separate graf at the bottom of the body copy.

    Gizmodo: More Engadget-style, external link in brackets at the bottom of the last body-copy graf.

    So some folks do it right, in my estimation, and some folks don’t. Again, I can’t think of a single argument why linking in body copy is a bad thing. 

    (And you’re completely right that newspapers, for example, are way behind on this — although with some good exceptions, like on many of the NYT’s blogs. But a big part of that is driven by the fact that most of those stories are written primarily for input into crappy print layout systems, where links both gum up the works and don’t have any value. Web-native outlets should be able to do better than that.)

  • Lewis

    Interesting. Bankoff & Co. always know what they’re doing.

    Forbes started structured data pages a year ago with our People, Places and Companies initiative. We now have 2,000 People pages, 2,000 Places and College pages and 2,000 company pages. Thousands more are on the way. They are all dynamic and all interconnected. 

    http://www.forbes.com/profile/bill-gates/

    From the Bill Gates profile page above you can get to the Microsoft Company page, the Seattle page and the Harvard page (he dropped out). You can also get to to related People, Places and Companies. All pages have real-time content, data and community and more.

    Now, with a tool we call the Vest Pocket, our staffers and contributors can promote these profile pages prominently in their posts. You can read about it here…

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/lewisdvorkin/2011/10/31/forbes-update-were-giving-journalists-more-creative-and-decision-making-power/

  • Anonymous

    Nilay, I just have to take one brief moment to tell you what an incredible thing the Verge team has built. My daily readers are the BBC, NYT, the FT, WSJ, and, now, The Verge. The reporting is just that good. There really is no quality differential obvious to me in my movement between sites, which I have never been able to say about a tech site before (giving This Is My Next a pass, as it was obviously never meant to be a fully-formed project). Being able to read a tech news/gadget site daily and experience the same level of professionalism as I expect from an industry titan like the Journal is incredible enough, but adding in the innovation and experimentation with new ideas and concepts that The Verge brings to the table is what is really blowing me away – even three days in! 

    I have to agree with Joshua on the source link bit – purely from an ease of use standpoint. Industry outsider question: Is there a reason one can’t use both forms of linkage?

    Thank you for all your hard work – really enjoying it. 

    Joshua Rief

  • Dennis D. McDonald

    I like this heading in their terms: “Love and help your moderators”

  • Mikkel Islay

    I appreciate that The Verge site design is an attempt at breaking away from the ethos of the ubiquitous blog design, which is neither very esthetic nor particularly functional. Unfortunately, the result achieves neither.
    The design is very restless and disorganised. The eye has nowhere to settle, because headlines, graphics and quotes all compete for attention. Functionally, there is no clear hierarchy to aid the reader distinguish between more and less important information, in and between news items. This is true both for the front page and individual items.Metaphorically, the design signals “twitter” rather than “Google Search”, which is unfortunate for a site which aims to distinguish itself by the quallity of its content.

  • http://www.withinwindows.com Rafael R.

    1 month later, this still isn’t fixed.

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