The new article is modular

When you think about editorial design, the first thing that comes to mind is the article or more specific the article template. I’d say an article template counts for nearly 80 percent of the user experience thus you have to make it nice.

What the article used to be

Looking back a few years an article was nothing more but a lot of paragraphs. If you wanted to make it nice and easier to read you’d include quotes, some images maybe an info box to explain some terms or core concepts of what the article was about – and that was basically it. Many news organizations adapted their storytelling to the new digital possibilities since then. That includes not only the front end or user-facing experience but also the back end, to make the lives of the editors easier and give them more tools to express themselves and to enrich the story.

How articles look like now

To enrich an article today, you can see lots of multimedia content like video, audio (podcasts) or moving images (gifs) but also more stuff like embeds from sources like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Because the conversation about the article does not longer take place in the comments section below the article and moved into social media, these snippets to embed became more and more important and crucial to the article experience. Apart from that, new ideas about how to explain certain facts or entertain users pop up every day in forms of explainer card stacks or story timelines, glossaries and more. The original article did blow up and the new article is no longer one entity. The article is often distributed to a lot of different places throughout the news site or magazine. And that is a challenge for editors and designers as well as developers.

The original article did blow up and the new article is no longer one entity.

Content architecture

The first challenge is the content architecture. I’ve been working with a lot of people working in editorial and what I got from them is that it’s hard to introduce new content concepts to editors. First of all the editor is used to copy an paste a text into a text field of the CMS – hello, Microsoft Word. Now the editor has to break-up the text into smaller pieces, so that content modules like images, info boxes, slideshows or the like are possible to integrate. That requires time and patience. And a working live preview that enables the editor to quality-check the article before pushing it live. Looking back at the copy-and-paste era, an editors life was definitely easier, although we as digital designers try to convince them of the contrary.

Looking back at the copy-and-paste era, an editors life was definitely easier, although we as digital designers try to convince them of the contrary.

The new front end

Well, developing article templates was also definitely easier a few years ago. With all these new things to keep in mind, the templates got more complex. And I don’t want to elaborate on the difficulties with keeping APIs of rapidly changing social networks up to date. Luckily, developments like Flexbox or CSS Grid are making it easier to develop complex layouts but with the amount of modules that you need in order to make an article look interesting today, it still is challenging. Just an info box that sits inside of the content can be tricky to implement, when the text has to float around it and –worst of all– it must work with common ad formats. Ad formats like skycrapers and rectangles that are still commonly used are hell for every developer. And when the developer is working side-by-side with the editor who has some “new ideas” on how to make the article even more interesting, you can basically watch faces melt.

The new, old backend

I think the biggest challenge introducing new article templates for new sites are their godforsaken backends or Content Management Systems that are at least two decades old. To get rid of these old clunky bastards organizations must be willing to invest millions of euros. To set up a new CMS is not even that hard but to migrate content from an ancient system into a new, modular architecture is a quest and the old data models are your final enemy. It is especially tricky to break up old articles to make them look new as well and as a result a lot of news sites still work like they did twenty years ago. They have one article template that consists of mostly paragraphs.

What to make of it

The first and most important thing you should think of before you start a new digital editorial project is the data structure or data model. This will require most of the work for sure and only by coming up with a thoroughly thought through information architecture you’ll reach your final destination. Also do not only think of the system that you’re trying to migrate to, think about future systems that you might want to introduce in a few years from now. Even better, don’t let the system decide your data model, do it the other way around.

Even better, don’t let the system decide your data model, do it the other way around.

When it comes to content management you should try and test some systems or concepts before you’re deciding which system to go for. Let the editors be part of your process. They have to work with the thing while you can focus on different things afterwards. Make sure, the editors you’re working with, understand the modular architecture and concept behind these new forms of article templates. That reduces errors before they can occur.

And dear designers, you should pay very close attention to your developers. You can work in tandem to make sure no one gets frustrated because some things are not working as expected. Include developers in your concept discussions in the very beginning and everyone is happy.

Links

Some systems that are worth checking out for your next digital editorial project:

Craft CMS – We, at diesdas.digital, are big fans of Craft. With matrix fields you can pretty much develop any kind of article template that you’re thinking of. Also Craft got recently updated to Version 3.

Ghost – A professional publishing platform. To be honest, I haven’t got the chance to work with Ghost before, but it all looks very promising.

GatherContent – If your editors are still working with Microsoft Word, it is time to introduce them to GatherContent, a tool to easily organize your content for website projects. It comes with a ton of integrations to popular Content Management Systems and it’s definitely worth checking out.

The truth is that I know nothing