July 22, 2014

When Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron congratulated the team of writers and editors behind Storyline after its launch Tuesday morning, he was addressing journalists who’d been spending a lot of time at work.

Some members of the team were in the office until 9 p.m. Monday night making final preparations. Jim Tankersley, the site’s editor, got in the office at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday.

“It’s fair to say that we worked many a night and weekend to get this where it is,” Tankersley said.

The site, which aims to answer big questions about public policy, bears some similarities to initiatives like FiveThirtyEight, The Upshot, QED and Vox, which was founded by Post alumnus Ezra Klein. This morning, Michael Calderone wrote in The Huffington Post wrote that the site was another salvo in the continuing “wonk wars.”

But what distinguishes Storyline from these other explanatory sites, Tankersley said, is its ambition to put public policy questions into context with powerful personal stories. This narrative approach is an effective way to process complicated information, just like graphs or charts are.

“We think that’s one of the things that makes us different from other homes on the Web,” Tankersley said.

The site plans to use these narratives to answer broad questions, which the team has dubbed storylines, about a wide variety of topics related to public policy. The team, which consists of Tankersley, four reporters, a video journalist, a data visualization specialist and assistant business editor Ryan McCarthy, is currently considering about a dozen such questions, which touch on the economic recovery, the changing climate and the immigration debate.

Tankersly has a background in this kind of journalism — the Post hired him from National Journal in 2012 to write big-picture stories about the economy, and he has a series of policy stories forthcoming in print and online, he said. In a post that accompanied the launch of Storyline, Tankersley wrote that the project was inspired by a series of stories that ran in The Oregonian in 1997, which explained the Asian financial crisis by following a shipment of spuds from the Western United States to a McDonalds in Singapore. Along the way, the potatoes came into contact with people who were affected by the financial panic, explaining the news “in a way no textbook or straight news piece could.”

The idea for Storyline began to coalesce in October out of conversations Tankersley had with Post reporter Eli Saslow. Tankersley submitted the pitch in December, before Klein left the Post, and got the greenlight in January. Klein was an early adviser to the site; he and Tankersley had coffee to discuss the concept, after which the Storyline editor remembers “coming back with a bunch of notes on the proposal.”

One benefit to watching these other sites launch is the ability to assess what made them successful, Tankersley said. For example, McCarthy, a Washington Post assistant business editor, noticed that the most successful policy sites had plenty of content before they went live, Tankersley said. Because of this, he urged Storyline’s team to have a week’s worth of content before they launched the site, a demand they met.

The content on Storyline is arranged in a way that stops just short of being an infinite scroll — a design that has gained traction in recent months with big names in news like Time Magazine and The Los Angeles Times. McCarthy, who worked on a similar content delivery system at Reuters, said the site’s design is an attempt at allowing readers to seamlessly access related content that interests them while allowing the Post to segment content by topic.

“We’re trying to take the idea of a continuous stream of news and break it into more than one section,” McCarthy said.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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