There’s a problem in journalism that’s been bothering Melissa Bell for a long time: How can digital storytelling techniques dreamed up in national news organizations find their way to smaller publications with mostly local audiences?
“I think that when we talk about digital journalism, we’re not seeing a huge amount of success and answers getting down to the local level,” said Bell, the vice president of growth and analytics at Vox Media. “And I really worry about that. I think about that a lot. I think we as an industry should be thinking about how to take some of the solutions that we figure out at the national level and help them get to the local level.”
News organizations like Vox.com have big national audiences that come with the scale and investment to foster digital innovation. But how frequently do those solutions trickle down to smaller properties? Not often enough, says Bell.
That’s one of the reasons why Vox.com recently made one of its signature digital resources available for wider use. Within the last few days, the explainer-driven website modified its card stacks — a series of concise primers focused mostly on current events — to allow for embedding anywhere on the Web. Now that the they’ve been freed from Vox.com’s domain, the card stacks are available for other news organizations and other sites to include in their stories as they see fit, Bell said.
At least one major news organization has already taken Bell up on the offer. Starting Thursday, the McClatchy Company’s Washington, D.C. bureau will begin including the card stacks in relevant national and world stories. Those articles, which will feature card stacks embedded using a shortcode, will then be distributed to the company’s local and regional newspapers across the nation.
For McClatchy, the benefits of using the card stacks are twofold, said Julie Moos, director of shared news initiatives at McClatchy DC and Poynter.org‘s former editor. The company, which has lately been rethinking its storytelling strategy and rolling out redesigns, will use the card stacks to add an additional layer of context to its stories. And through conversations with Vox.com about embedding the card stacks, McClatchy is gaining insight into how the digitally native news outlet operates.
“It’s a great opportunity to learn from a company that has been innovating in digital ways that are going to allow us to do things that we couldn’t otherwise do,” Moos said.
For Vox.com, making the card stacks embeddable is part of an ongoing push to develop a content distribution strategy that isn’t tied to its website. One of the outlet’s priorities is to develop an on-platform and off-platform storytelling plan so that its offerings are available wherever readers are. That sometimes necessitates making content just for social media channels like Facebook and Twitter, uploading video to YouTube and, in this case, unbundling its explainers from Vox.com.
The card stacks made sense as an embeddable resource because each offers a big-picture look at an ongoing news story, Bell said. Articles are usually narrower in scope because they’re focused on specific news events, whereas card stacks are general information resources that are more broadly applicable.
“Card stacks and articles are meant to work together, the former providing depth to the latter,” Bell said. “In the end, card stacks made sense as an embeddable tool – they’re there when you need them, at the bottom of an article, or linked from a big picture question.”
There’s also a financial upside to making the cards available for wider use. Vox.com has the capacity to display ads in the card stacks, and making them embeddable allows those ads to travel to other news sites to be viewed by their respective audiences. The impressions on the embeds count toward Vox.com’s comScore data.
Freeing the card stacks from Vox.com also has a less-tangible benefit, Bell said.
“We want people to think of Vox as the organization that not only explains the news of the day, but explains all of the news,” she said. “And so as they are reading our resources when they’re on their favorite blogs or news sites, obviously that’s wonderful branding for us.”
Vox isn’t the only news organization making distributed content a priority. Late last month, NPR began offering embed codes for its library of 800,000 pieces of audio in the hopes of introducing its content to new audiences. The Guardian, The New York Times and the BBC have long offered API’s that allow others to embed their content. And companies like BuzzFeed and First Look Media have both created publications that make content exclusively for the social Web.