How National Journal Tackled the Too Much News Problem

A curated newsfeed helps cut through the noise.

Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 12.36.03 PMCentered, literally, on National Journal’s recently redesigned website is its new live briefing feature. Titled “What We’re Following,” the feed offers a curated selection of news from the day, each item accompanied by a short paragraph of analysis. Currently in beta, the feature stands out among the standard redesign recipe of font, category and photo manipulation, infinite scrolls and logo changes.

The idea for the feed started with the results of an annual report put out by the National Journal Communications Council called Washington in the Information Age. The report, which looked at how the DC community gets and uses media, revealed a problem of too much–a growing mass of news that confused rather than clarified.

“That was the first insight that we had that this is a problem that maybe we could address,” says graphics director Andrew McGill, who, along with audience development assistant editor Jessica Huff, was tasked with creating a solution that would tame the information beast that is news in the modern age.

McGill and Huff began talking to readers to figure out what they’d like to see, using the input as a base for the feed. The final product, write McGill and Huff in a post introducing the feed, “aims to provide read­ers with the im­me­di­acy of Twit­ter but with the con­text and ana­lys­is of a news­let­ter.” But “un­like a tra­di­tion­al news­let­ter,” they continue, “our ana­lys­is is provided in real time, mak­ing the product rel­ev­ant throughout the work­day. And con­trary to Twit­ter, it’s de­signed to be eas­ily read and fin­ished.”

The day-to-day work of maintaining the feed is performed by NJ reporters Jason Plautz and Jack Fitzpatrick. The pair, going off of night-before sit-downs with editors about content, along with scans of social media and newsfeeds, provide most of the analysis for the items in the feed. If they find an item would benefit from expert analysis, “they’ll go to specific people in the newsroom who they know specialize in a certain subject,” says Huff.

As the homepage become less of a destination for readers–giving way to access through mobile and article-specific pages–developers, designers and editors are left to address the existential crisis that follows. What is the purpose of a homepage when it is no longer the place most go to get news? For McGill, it’s “a lab.” Placing the feed so prominently on the homepage gives the team the space to experiment.

“But that doesn’t mean this is the only place it’s going to be,” says McGill. Think of it as a launchpad. “We have a whole bunch of ideas for how to expand. Our basic guiding principle for that is, where our audience is going to be, we want this tool to be able to help them.”

Other than the newsfeed, the logo change is perhaps the most visible part of the redesign. Gone is the red bar above the thick black “NJ,” the red, black and white color scheme of the old site. The bar and many elements on the site have turned to gold. The switch, according to creative director David Somerville, was intended to make NJ “stand out from that crowd.”

“Washington is a red and blue town,” he told FishbowlDC. “When we looked around the competitive landscape, we saw a number of media companies–in the political space as well as the larger arena–using primary red or shades of blue for their sites. The gold was selected because it’s sleek, easy on the eye, and tends to frame media content well, no matter what the subject matter.”

The principle of National Journal’s redesign, of its newsfeed, follows a recent trend of keeping sites adaptable, mutable and responsive.

“We have built in the idea that we are going to be continually experimenting and iterating on this,” says McGill, “which is something I haven’t always had a chance to do in my journalistic career. I’m very excited by the idea that this could change depending on what the data shows, what they audience says, and that’s ok and that’ll make it better.”