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Controlled chaos: As journalism and documentary film converge in digital, what lessons can they share?
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Dec. 11, 2013, 11:04 a.m.
Audience & Social

The U.K.’s Ampp3d thinks it knows why you want to click on charts, images, and memes

ampp3dgraphic2 Data-driven storytelling and web-native, sharable journalism are two of the biggest trends in media at the moment. If you locked the two together in a room, Ampp3d might be what would walk out the door.

Ampp3d is a new news site launched in the U.K. by The Daily Mirror, with a focus on telling the stories of the day through web-friendly stats and figures. That’s why when you go to Ampp3d, you’ll encounter headlines like “8% of your salary – the true cost of commuting by rail?” and “1 framed photo, 1 sausage manufacturer, a £20bn trade deficit: Cameron’s trip to China.”

As a news site, Ampp3d keeps its output fairly condensed: short pieces with an emphasis on visualizations, charts, and graphics, all designed for mobile audiences. The responsive site looks a lot like an infinitely scrolling Tumblr, with prominent Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ buttons to encourage sharing.

Martin Belam, editor of Ampp3d, said stories with numbers and statistics are reliably great material that encourage sharing. (We’ve noticed that tweets with hard numbers in them tend to be retweeted more than those that don’t.) But too often newsrooms limiting the online reach of data analysis by being “comprehensive about the data for the sake of being comprehensive, and it can end up just being dry or inconsequential,” he said.

Ampp3d aims to optimize those data points to spread, but without losing the impact or the context of analysis. So a story on changes in the way Britain calculates which households are eligible for assistance with heating costs becomes “How grandparents on £250 a week were magically lifted out of fuel poverty in one night.”

While Ampp3d may not be doing deep statistical analysis, the site aims to adopt the style of social news sites like BuzzFeed to reach new audiences and to learn from Quartz’ success focusing on charts and other nuggets of data. “One of the nice things is being a small team, we’re not obligated to cover everything the whole of the Mirror is covering that day,” he said. “We’re covering things we think will succeed socially.” As for th3 nam3? A simple state-of-the-media-in-2013 explanation, as Belam writes in a post introducing Ampp3d: “We needed a name that was available as a .co.uk domain, a .com domain, and as a URL and username on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat and Google+.”

Like many media companies, Trinity Mirror, parent company of The Daily Mirror, wants to harness some of the potential — and the audience — from social media to draw more eyes to its journalism. But in this case, Ampp3d is working on its own as a separate shop outside of the Mirror’s newsroom. While they’re working with the Mirror’s data team, Ampp3d was largely built from scratch as a digital news operation within an existing media company. But Belam sees it as more of a startup than a laboratory for the Mirror. “I’ve been in institutions before that will have an innovation lab, and other parts of the business poke in and try to hold it back,” he said.

ampp3dgraphic3

Ampp3d was designed to be a quick-moving enterprise. The site went from concept to launch in eight weeks. That’s partially out of necessity — the project has a three-month initial budget in which to prove itself, before the Mirror re-evaluates.

But it’s also because Belam and his team built a kind of proof-of-concept with the site UsVsTh3m. Started in May, the site reached 7 million unique visitors in November with its mix of videos, games, images, and more. The majority of that traffic, Belam tells me, came from social media. In October, they shifted gears and began working on what would become Ampp3d. “There’s a feeling of, okay, let’s take what we learned from this, not quite do it again, but let’s start something else,” he said.

UsVsTh3m has proven to be a mini-BuzzFeed baked in a British oven. They created Doctor Who plotline generators, a quiz that tells readers how Northern they are, and a cheeky satire of The New York Times’ Snow Fall called “Icefail.” (Spend a few minutes running around 8-bit Britain as David Cameron in Super Tory Boy.)

The site was developed quickly using Tumblr as the platform, which fit with their goals of being inherently social, mobile, and visual. Belam said the idea was to be able to build and release things quickly to see the reaction and discover what code could be put to use in other projects. Again, that was partially out of necessity, because the group of coders and writers working on the project was small, so any pieces that could be repurposed were a help to production. But it was also a form of testing: Finding the right combination of code, story, or topic, he said, is what ultimately leads to success. (For a deeper look at what make UsVsTh3m work, check out this transcript of a talk Belam gave at Hacks/Hackers London.)

usvsth3mgame

Super Tory Boy, a news game developed by UsVsTh3m.

The interactives created on UsVsTh3m also helped show what types of material perform best on social media. The goal of games and quizzes, Belam said, is to try to “capture an angle on a story that people want to share because it expresses something about them and their values.”

The six months of UsVsTh3m also provided a number of insights into the differences in traffic from Twitter and Facebook. Belam said Facebook proved to be the more persistent source of traffic, while Twitter was helpful in creating buzz. But there are some truisms that can’t be avoided: Not every story, game, or graphic is going to catch fire. “One of the things I’ve come to is you can’t design your way around bad content,” he said. “If you’ve got good content, it will surface on social media and people will share it.”

That’s among the many ideas and tools Belam plans to use as Ampp3d is built out over the next few months. It’ll be a high-wire act, with regular updates to the layout as well as the back end. Belam said they want to continue to iterate and put the lessons of UsVsTh3m to use with Ampp3d. One thing that will make that easier is operating outside of the Mirror’s existing technology architecture and CMS. That agile, on-the-fly, approach to code also carries over into the writing and other content the team develops. As at Quartz, Belam wants his team to cover the areas they are obsessed with, the things that they are passionate about. “I can’t think of anything worse than hiring a team of talented journalists and telling them to report on stuff that they don’t think is interesting,” Belam said.

POSTED     Dec. 11, 2013, 11:04 a.m.
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