A new home page for the Sydney Morning Herald delivers a more dynamic reading and editing experience as the Nine-owned publisher moves its focus from reach to a subscriber-based model.
In an INMA post, deputy digital editor Sophia Phan tells how the group's four metro websites - for the Herald, The Age, Brisbane Times and WAtoday - have been redesigned to contextualise the biggest stories and highlight award-winning photojournalism.
"The previous home page had a limited layout, allowing for only ten stories at the top of the page, all slotted into a static layout," she says. "If news broke, it didn't allow home page editors to best highlight a story's significance or group accompanying analysis, opinion, or explainer pieces."
Nor did it allow editors to showcase the depth of coverage, from local news and sport, to lifestyle and culture. She says subscriber data had shown those who regularly consume a broad range of topics were less likely to churn.
"The mix of image sizes throughout the top stories allows us to better diversify content and balance our site with soft and hard news."
Digital editors collaborated with product and technology teams to design story templates allowing for this agility, workshopping a number of units, and running a two-week experiment to determine audience interest and engagement. An internal Slack channel enabled digital teams to flag bugs and provide suggestions.
Phan (pictured) says the content units vary from one-story to four-story layouts. "Image prominence, placement, and size are all adaptable. We also have designs allowing us to place related and unrelated stories side-by-side within the one module," she says.
Meetings with product and design teams have also helped improve existing configurations and draw up new ones. The latest home page iteration focussed on redesigning lead templates to better highlight story hierarchy and presentation, and took a week or so after identifying weaknesses and optimising new designs, before they appeared live on site.
Designs also empowered home page editors with the ability to include titles on each unit at the top of the home page to better contextualise content and emphasise breaking news.
She says this was well-utilised on the day of the Capitol riots in the US, when editors were able to turn on that title in the defcon layout - something that was not possible in the earlier design.
"The home page was reconfigured to emphasise and add weight to editors' picks, which has gained prominence when moved higher up the home page. It provided another place for us to showcase our premium selection of newsletters and podcasts.
"Home page editors are responsible for dynamically editing all of these content units to ensure a seamless experience for the reader."
With many templates to choose from, editors' decisions are subjective and dependent on factors such as the type of imagery on offer and the overall balance of the website.
She says a dashboard will better inform editors and provide deeper insight around performance beyond article level. "The dashboard will ultimately track frequency of content unit use, click-through rate based on both unit position and story position within a unit, as well as engagement time and completion rate for each template," she says.
And with this iteration of the site only live for three months, she adds, "there's no doubt it will undergo further redesign once data on readership patterns has been analysed".
• Based on an INMA Digital Strategies blog, with permission.