British network ITV unveiled a bold new look for its news site Monday — one that favors newness over editorial control, rethinks what a “story” is, and takes inspiration from the Twitter and Facebook streams that increasingly influence how people get their news.
ITV calls the new site, developed with the London firm Made by Many, a “rolling news site,” and it shows: It serves up a seemingly bottomless stream of bite-sized content, newest at the top. Like Twitter, the stream of content automatically expands when you scroll to page bottom. If a new update is posted while you’re reading the page, a note appears at page top to alert you to it, à la “4 new Tweets” on twitter.com.
“We had an opportunity to do something radically different,” says Julian March, who’s in charge of digital media for ITV’s news, sports, and weather coverage. “We wouldn’t possibly be able to compete against all the competitors out there, like CNN, BBC, Sky, all of those guys who have well established products over a decade or more. So we had to do something which had impact, was realizable, was doable by us.”
You might call it the streamification of news design, or an echo back to the reverse-chronological flow of posts that has defined blogs since the late 1990s. News operations born online — think Techcrunch or Engadget — have leaned toward a design language that always highlights the newest work produced by its staff. But newspapers and broadcasters have, broadly speaking, been more invested in making editorial and layout decisions about where stories appear on their front pages. Think of it as the Page 1 meeting that never ends.
ITV’s new look is a step away from that. Content-wise, ITV is posting mostly quick hits, limited to a couple of paragraphs or shorter. The stream is also populated with headlined Twitter posts from newsmakers or journalists. The result is a somewhat frenetic newsfeed that at times more closely resembles a reporter’s notebook than a traditional story.
That doesn’t mean editorial control disappears. ITV selects a few stories at any given time to be highlighted in the left sidebar. But “story” in this case doesn’t mean 15 inches of narrative — a “story” is closer to the StoryStream model of SB Nation or The Verge, a series of discrete dispatches on the same topic. So if you wanted to know more about an ITV story — say, the Duchess of Cambridge’s first public speaking appearance — click “Kate gives first speech” and you’re taken to a stream of 10 short items about the story, ranging from the initial announcement to an assurance that “Kate’s speech ‘all her own work’” to “Duchess arrives” to video of a speech coach rating her performance. The whole thing’s topped by a link to the full, traditional story ITV did to wrap the event.
ITV also presents news streams by beat — politics, business, money, health, etc. — and by region. Each region serves up a unique sidebar of stories. Visit the site from an iPhone and you’re directed first to the story list, then allowed to view the full stream or dive into a topic.
The central idea is to deliver customized, dynamically generated content to readers who are doing one of two things when they visit a news website.
“Skimming and digging,” March said. “We think that roughly 80 percent of visits to websites are based on skimming behavior: You go to the news site asking, ‘Tell me what the news is today.’…Digging is where you come to the site and you’ve got a very specific kind of requirement: ‘I want to know what is going on in the Eurozone crisis,’ or ‘I’ve just heard that Fabrice Muamba the footballer has collapsed, how is he doing?’”
With its redesigned site, ITV News is looking to cater first to the skimmers, and then to the diggers.
“You go to the homepage and every time you come back it’s completely different,” March said. “You’re guaranteed to get something different, and the digging can happen subsequently.”
The new aesthetic is a significant departure from the site’s more traditional previous iteration, which looked much like ITV’s current homepage. March wouldn’t provide specific numbers but he says traffic to the site on its first day has been “extremely encouraging,” and that the overall site roll-out was remarkably smooth.
More news sites are experimenting with stream-like design approaches. We wrote in January about Boston.com’s experiments with a stream on one of its hyperlocal sites, and it seems likely we’ll see more Twitter-inspired looks.
But not every news junkie is as thrilled with the change. AnnArbor.com, which launched in 2009 with a stream look, has since brought back more editorial control. And, as evidenced in the comments section of a Guardian story about the redesign, some ITV readers are knocking the design’s simplicity as amateurish and the chunky content as “a list of endlessly repeated guff about the latest bone that an editor wants to gnaw to death.”
But, as Paul Bradshaw passes along, stream-based looks do seem to have the benefit of keeping readers around for much longer — an ongoing problem for news sites and not one for social networks. Bradshaw quotes William Owen of Made By Many as saying “user testing showed hugely long page view times, it’s addictive.” (More from the design team here.)
March says the new platform is perfect for reporters who are “absolutely chomping at the bit” to get information out. The way it works: ITV correspondents from two national desks and nine regional desks send original reporting updates to a team of curators who are already aggregating wire copy, tweets, and other stories for the site.
“The guidelines are: Tell us what you know, and tell us now,” March said. “There is already a process of continuous contact between news gatherers, the news desk and curators — but we’ve also got a system which enables and empowers anyone in the newsroom to update the site if need be. We’re not doing this with any more headcount than we had — we’re just realizing more value out of the journalists that we have.”