Future of TPM #1

One of the things I have wanted for TPM for a very long time is a greater ability to visualize the story streams we focus on here at the site. This is a particular need for what we do precisely because we’re not a general interest publication. We’re focused on news about politics and political culture. But even within that purview, we tend to go deep and in a sustained way on a relatively few core stories we think are of particular importance and interest. Much of this you will recognize intuitively if you’re a core or longtime reader. I narrate some of these threads in my own commentary and analysis in the Editors’ Blog. But as the site has evolved over time that is not really sufficient. We’ve largely relied on these bigger pictures being clear in regular readers’ heads through repeat reading and immersion. But that’s not sufficient. 

If we have a new story on the Manafort trials, it’s not enough just to have that piece out of the blue. You want it placed in a context of our recent reporting. Each of these stories are progressions in time. So the progression is as important as the new developments. Indeed, the new developments have meaning only in the context of that progression through time.

Next month, if all goes according to plan, we’ll be introducing a new front page to the site which will allow us to visualize these connections more clearly, give you a clearer path into the stories from the front page of the site, which is still (unlike the great majority of other sites) how most readers consume what we produce.

If you look at the front page now – apart from the Editors’ Blog and Livewire – it’s a collection of story boxes, each with a photograph and a headline. Our team puts a lot of time into juggling those different slots throughout the day to capture what we see as newsworthy, popular, a good mix of the different stories we’re focused on. But it’s still a very limited palette the team has to work with.

To give you some nuts and bolts particulars, there’s actually no way to have a link which is only text, even though in many cases the photograph doesn’t add a great deal of information or meaning. There’s also little way to signal what is particularly important or new versus slightly older stories. For instance, sometimes people ask why things slide off the front page so quickly? They’ll even ask why a particular piece was ‘pulled off the site’, as though we unpublished it. They key is that there simply is not much room relative to all the stuff we publish through the day. And we don’t have a terribly good way of keeping things visible and accessible for a period of time after they’re published. Too often the front page is simply a cacophony of different story boxes with not enough guidance about what’s super important versus ephemeral or guidance into stories big or small.

As a reader, here is what I would and do want: if there’s a new story from Alice Ollstein on one of the various family separation immigration court cases, it would be helpful to have the recent stories there too and perhaps a quick explanation of how they fit together. If there’s a big story that explains the details or core issues of that court case, a link to that would also be handy. Say there’s a big new development on the Russia front, or some new thing about yet some new contact between Russian intelligence officers and a GOP bigwig. That’s great. But I’d like to be able to look in one place to see not just that one story but a broader read of where whole Russia story is today; or a link to the latest Weekly Primer on Trump/Russia or a selection recent stories to place the new development in the story progression.

On this front we have been admittedly a bit behind. But it’s particularly important for us because following stories through iterative coverage is the heart of what we do.

We won’t necessarily have all of this on day one. What our small but resourceful tech and design time has now spent many months working on is a new publishing system for the front page of the site which will give our team the tools to do this. So there will be a lot of experimentation in just how we use these tools, what seems to work and what doesn’t. But it will make it possible to do things we’ve wanted to do for a very long time but have not been able to do within the publishing tools we have available.

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