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Innovation at The Washington Post: elections, storytelling, and reader experience

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Innovation at The Washington Post: elections, storytelling, and reader experience

Image: Screenshot By The Way

Since the 2016 presidential election, The Washington Post has been experimenting with the presentation of coverage and results, which has given rise to new data-driven initiatives and storytelling approaches that are being applied to this election cycle.

“From reporting to presentation, The Post in 2020 is undertaking the most ambitious election coverage I’ve seen from us in my 17 years here,” says The Post’s Greg Barber, who will be speaking at this year’s World News Media Congress in Zaragoza, Spain.

But elections aren’t the only area the organisation is innovating in. In recent years, it has launched several projects with a focus on reader experience, such as The Mueller Report Illustrated, and continued its experimentation on social media platforms and channels.

WAN-IFRA: Are you approaching the 2020 election differently from how you did 2016 – what key learnings have influenced your approach?

Greg Barber: Our politics desk has fielded an impressive slate of reporters that brings to the table a mix of deep expertise and fresh perspectives. And our formidable teams including video, audio and social media are crafting our storytelling for a diverse array of formats and platforms.

Covering an election is really covering the country – the topics on people’s minds and the issues that impact their lives. Our team is fanned out to get the best picture possible of the U.S. at this moment in history.

On the technology side, Engineering Director Jeremy Bowers and Product Manager Amanda Gustafson have overhauled the systems we use to deliver election results, emphasizing quality, speed and functionality.

"Working hand in hand, engineering and the newsroom, especially our politics, graphics, operations, video and universal news desk teams, have also re-envisioned the way we knit together live and enterprise campaign storytelling to create the easily accessible package of content our subscribers have told us they prefer," – Greg Barber

We’ve spent the years since 2016 experimenting with the presentation of election coverage and results, watching key metrics during elections and primaries – including the 2018 elections in Congress and individual states – and talking directly with our readers about what they want to know during the life cycle of a campaign. That feedback has been critical to our development, and we’ll continue to learn and evolve throughout the year.

What projects, tools, and storytelling formats will dominate coverage?

This will be an experimental year for us on many fronts, but I’m most excited about the work we’ve done to reinforce the basics.

Our live coverage of big campaign events – clusters of primaries including Super Tuesday in March, the presidential nominating conventions, presidential debates – will feature the full range of Washington Post reporting talent in text and video.

They’ll be using live publishing tools that we’ve updated this year to make those stories easier for journalists to file and edit and for readers to consume on all of their devices.

I’m a data nerd, so I love a good election results page.

"Our graphics, design, polling and engineering teams have outdone themselves in crafting pages that load quickly on mobile devices and that serve up speedy results and illustrative visualisations throughout an election night and into the next day."

In an election season this complex, context is the killer app. Our team of writers covering the White House, the president’s challengers and the country has a proven track record of savvy and creativity.

After the adrenaline rush of a primary night is over, our readers know they can turn to The Post to put what’s just happened into perspective and to explain the impact on the campaign ahead. I find our next-day analysis as compelling as election night.

What are some of the new and more unusual storytelling formats the Washington Post has been experimenting with, and how has the audience reacted to them?

Over the last few months, the experiments I’ve most enjoyed have focused on experiences.

Our new By The Way travel vertical stood the traditional travel-journalism model on its head by turning to locals for its advice instead of travel writers. The result has been textured reviews of nearly 70 cities around the world, packed with the kind of nuance that locals know.

I also just love the way By The Way looks. You can tell it was created by a team with serious design chops.

Also new is our video gaming vertical, Launcher, which grew out of our sports department. The stories range from profiles of key players in the gaming world to industry news to reviews of games.

My gaming days trailed off when controllers had fewer buttons, but I still read Launcher to keep abreast of a massive industry and to enjoy our writers’ enthusiasm. The words just leap off the page.

Reader experience was the key driver for another Post project: The Mueller Report Illustrated, a telling of the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller in graphic-novel format.

"Our team’s goal was to present the report in a way that was more accessible to readers who might be daunted by cracking open a 448-page government document. The result is a compelling digital read that’s also available as a printed book."

How would you characterise the type of content the Washington Post produces for TikTok?

Compelling enough to get a 40-something person like me to use TikTok every day.

Do you experiment with channels like TikTok and Twitch for the sake of novelty or is there an engagement and subscription strategy behind your experimentation?

I remember fielding similar questions when I ran our experiments on Facebook a decade ago. Turns out, taking time to learn our place in that ecosystem was a wise investment.

"Our work on TikTok and Twitch employs a similar approach: we explore the platform, engage with its audience, and determine how and whether there’s a good fit – and how that fit might evolve as the platform does. We’re always learning and iterating."

When we experiment on platforms, we ask the same core question as when we experiment on our site or in print: what are the most engaging ways to tell a story in this space?

At its best, that question helps us discover new colors on our palette that we can show to readers. That exploration is electric. It’s what gets people like me out of bed in the morning.


Simone Flueckiger's picture

Simone Flueckiger


2020-02-14 15:21

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