Journalism isn’t all fun and games. But if The Washington Post has its way, fun and games might make their way into journalism a little more often.
A new suite of apps developed by Post engineers over the last year allows the paper’s journalists to create quizzes, polls, ballots, brackets and other interactives with minimal hassle. If reporters or editors want a visual aid to liven up their copy, they can call on one of eight apps and create something without help from a designer or developer, said Greg Barber, director of digital news projects at The Washington Post.
“We can look at the facts that we have and we can say, ‘how can we best reach readers this way?'” Barber said. “‘How can we best tell the story?’ In some places it’s going to be narrative, in some places it’s going to be photos, in some places it’s going to be video — but in some cases it will be actually getting the user to interact with the news.”
At The Washington Post, the apps have variously been used to divert readers, draw their attention to more traditional articles or as standalone features. Wonkblog writer Christopher Ingraham, whom Barber calls The Post’s “quiz master,” used a simple multiple-choice quiz to popular effect when he invited readers to name major cities based on an outline of their subway systems. Another recent quiz asked readers if they could find the Libyan city of Benghazi on a map — Barber says he aced that one.
The apps have also allowed the Post to solicit reader feedback for content that falls outside the realm of traditional articles. Express, The Post’s commuter paper, is using the ballots app to determine the winners of its annual “Best of Washington, D.C.” contest. Likewise, the features department used the Post’s bracket app to pit brews against each other for its annual “Beer Madness” competition.
With its foray into gaming, The Washington Post joins the likes of BuzzFeed, which has had templates for quizzes built into its content management system since 2013. At The Post, the games apps will be offered as part of Arc, the in-house content management system that now powers the website. The products are being built in parallel, with development plans designed to work in concert.
The investment in gaming apps reads as a tacit acknowledgement of the influence and ubiquity of quizzes in digital media. Once derided as clickable fodder for traffic-obsessed Web upstarts, quizzes have now found a home in the technical infrastructure of one of America’s most prestigious news organizations. In recent years, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Slate and others have used quizzes to spur audience engagement for various stories.
That isn’t to say games are an entirely new enterprise for news organizations. Tabloids and big dailies were running contests and quizzes long before BuzzFeed struck viral gold with such items as “Which Disney princess are you?” But the rise of the social Web has catapulted quizzes, with their eminently sharable results, into new vogue among a wide variety of news outlets and their audiences.
The Post’s engineers opted to create their own apps rather than using third-party software like Google Forms because they wanted to be capable of tailoring quizzes and games to the paper’s exact specifications, said Alex Remington, a product manager at The Washington Post. Creating original products enables the Post to change anything at will without fussing with another company’s code.
“Frankly, it’s faster for us to write our own code than it is to try to adapt someone else’s,” Remington said. “Now that we have all of this out there, it becomes a great deal easier for someone to say: Well, I’d like this feature. You can just scope it out and very often turn it around in a day.”
Beyond their use as illustrators of news, the quizzes and games also present an opportunity to establish a rapport with a certain segment of readers, Barber said. The Post is working to cultivate an audience of its most dedicated gamers with a newsletter that includes a weekly roundup of the quizzes on The Post’s website. Barber says he can also imagine a future in which The Post might use user data to identify website visitors who are perennial quiz-takers and serve them quizzes or other games.
Correction: A previous version of this story cited the Joe Biden compliment generator as an example of the interactives created with The Post’s gaming apps. In fact, that tool was not made using the apps. This story also previously said that “it’s unclear” whether the apps will be offered as part of the Post’s new content management system. They will be.