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A reader-focused redesign: 10 good questions with the LA Times’ Jimmy Orr

The Los Angeles Times just redesigned their site with a focus on mobile and a goal of increasing reader engagement through pre-written tweets or “sharelines,” infinite scrolling, and a handful of other design specs.

We talked with Jimmy Orr, managing editor of digital, to discuss what problems the Times was trying to solve with the redesign, why their topic-specific blogs do well, and which metrics matter.

Where did you spend most of your attention with the redesign? What “problems” were you trying to solve with this design?

JIMMY ORR: Easy. We wanted to decrease the bounce rate. Increase Time Spent on Site. Increase pageviews per Visit. Increase video views. Increase shares. Increase loyalty. Overall, it’s about engagement. We want our readers to spend more time here. We knew that our previous design was prohibitive.

We had to think about our mobile readers. They had to be in the forefront — not an add-on. We had to think mobile-first. Very soon (in the next few months), more than half our traffic will be on mobile. We’re almost there and it’s not going back. So we had to think of these very important readers.

Responsive, of course, made sense. So whatever device you’re on — you get a great experience.

We also had to give the article page the attention it deserved. Most of our readers go to the article page first. So how are we going to design the article page to serve as a ‘homepage’ as well?

And we wanted seamless. What could we do to make the reader experience seamless? As little work as possible? Once they’re interested in a story, how can design help the reader consume more — not only of that story but of our other content?


So when we began interviewing vendors, we liked Code & Theory’s approach. They didn’t talk to us necessarily about creating a beautiful looking site. They talked to us about solving problems. And they explained how their innovative designs could solve our problems. They asked the right questions. They got to know our journalism. They embedded themselves in our newsroom. They were a partner throughout.

Readers were our partner too. The designs were user-tested. Extensively. There wasn’t a gut-approach here. It was user-tested. Math. Analytics are our friend. Let the readers tell us how they like to navigate. What their patterns are. We listened to readers.

 I’d love to hear some of the thinking and big ideas behind the re-design. Can you talk about the “sharelines” and the article pages in particular?

ORR: We liked the idea of sharelines for two reasons. Oftentimes readers share before reading the article. It’s just a fact. We may want them to read the whole article, ponder it, analyze it, and then post it on Facebook or Twitter. But many don’t. So, let’s make it easy for them. Pre-written tweets will make it easier for the reader to share.

The sharelines also serve as bullet points for the story. This helps the reader decide if they want to read the article or if the bullet points are enough. Again, we’re thinking about the reader.

Credit: Los Angeles Times

If the sharelines are written correctly, we’ll see an increase in social media traffic — whether the reader read the whole article or not. So, we’ll pay very close attention to writing these. Our social media team will be deeply involved and offering feedback on how to best put these together.

As for the article page, it was important that we increase the white space for readability, we lock in the navigation on the left so readers have that ‘persistent navigation’ wherever they are, we break up the longer stories with videos and photos to make it easier to read, and, of course, the endless scroll. This is a great feature because it’s more seamless for the reader.

Once you are done with one article, we’re going to tempt you with another. But there’s a twist, you can also jump to a variety of sections as you scroll down. We’re finding people are taking advantage of this.

Credit: Los Angeles Times

I’m sure the re-design isn’t just cosmetic. Can you tell me a bit about the backend? How do you think this redesign will help in measuring and increasing reader engagement?

ORR: That’s a great point about the redesign being so much more than cosmetic. Remember, we wanted to solve problems first. Give us that structure. Worry about cosmetics later. We want increased engagement so let that be the goal. And if you can make it look visually attractive too, then that’s a great bonus. And we have both with this site.

And yes, we’re measuring everything. Will people read more of our articles as a result of the design? Are we seeing an increase in video views? Are we finding that people are reading our neighborhoods coverage and are they coming back for it? Do we see an increase in loyalty? Are more people signing up for membership? What conversion patterns are becoming evident? Are we seeing a big increase in pageviews per visit? Are we seeing an increase in uniques? Are visits up?

Reader testing will never stop.

We have to measure. And measure extensively. We create a ton of content here. The challenge in the past has been showing people the breadth and depth of our coverage. As a result of this relaunch are we finding that more people are finding what we have? What patterns do we see here? How can we continue to improve? Reader testing will never stop.

Speaking of measuring, you released an end of year report last year with a lot of measurements. One of the things that caught my eye was that your topic-specific blogs (LA Now, Daily Dish, Movies Now and Science) have seen a lot of growth. Why do you think these have been so successful?

ORR: For a variety of reasons, but it all goes back to the people. The people who own the blogs and that write for the blog — they’re experts in their fields. For example, we have the best entertainment staff in the country — it’s not even close. We have the only Pulitzer prize winning food critic, Jonathan Gold. So these people, they know their beats, they know their audience and they understand how to write for a digital audience.

LA Now, Movies Now, and Daily Dish, they’re strong local blogs. There’s a national interest too, of course, because we’re LA. But we have to be good in these areas — we have to be because it’s our backyard. It’s what we do.

We have dedicated reporters on these blogs. They write with authority, have veteran insights, very strong sources and so they are the preeminent people. When the story is lighter, they write with creativity, wit, voice, but with that comes authority too. It all comes back to the very strong staff that we have and also, their ability to write for a digital audience.

What do you think are some applicable lessons for other news orgs when it comes to running these topic-specific blogs?

ORR: We want to build a destination. We want people to — when they think of certain topics — we want them to come here. And so, people will come to your site if they know that it’s updated frequently, and so it’s important to keep it fresh. And it’s important to have the information that the reader wants and, so it has to be lively. And the writers have to have that authority. The reader has to trust who they’re reading.

So it’s got to be lively, it’s got to be fresh, it’s got to be authoritative, and when we mix those three together, there’s a winning result.

So it’s got to be lively, it’s got to be fresh, it’s got to be authoritative, and when we mix those three together, there’s a winning result. But you can tell by reading these posts that there’s a lot of gravitas in them. There’s a lot of authority. These people are really strong journalists and that’s key.

You have to have that relationship with your audience. If you think about it, whatever interest that you have, when you log onto your laptop in the morning or if you’re on your tablet or whatever, you can search for that information and search is important and we continue to be good at it, but what we’re trying to build are these destination sections, sites or blogs, where people will come to us, and of course, all the other places where we show up, in social media or search or wherever, are all very important because it exposes new people to us, but we want to be destination.

These numbers show a lot of what worked. What hasn’t worked so well and what have you learned from that?

ORR: That’s easy and I thought about this. It’s something that we’ve talked about a lot. Bad headlines don’t work. If we’re not thinking about the headlines and what works digitally, it’s not going to be read. If you use the same print headline online, you’re dooming the story. It’s not going to be read. We’ve learned that.

If you use the same print headline online, you’re dooming the story.

We’ve made a lot of progress in thinking about the headline. Of course we’ve all talked about this for a long time but that headline has got to stand alone. Whether readers see it on your site, or sees it on Facebook or search or whatever, that headline is absolutely key. So bad headlines don’t work. By not paying attention to headlines, you’re dooming the story.

And if you’re not acting as your own publisher, that doesn’t work.

MT: What do you mean by that?

ORR: Well, what are you doing to promote your own story? That’s the key. What are you doing on social media to promote it? There are a variety of different ways to get your story out there. But how are you promoting your story? So if you don’t think about that, you stand a much greater chance of the article not being read, which is too bad but it’s important, you have to think about how am I going to get this story out?

It can’t just be I wrote a great story, put it on the homepage. If we have 200 stories a day, 200 pieces of content a day, not all of them can go up on the homepage. So we have to think — the individual writer and editor have to also think how am I going to get this story out there? How am I going to get it read?

And, not being present and active. An “I wrote my story approach and that’s good enough” isn’t enough digitally. You gotta stay on top of it. You have to see what readers are saying about it. You have to give them more if the story warrants. You’ve got to follow. You’ve got to keep active. Offer that extra that readers can’t get anywhere else. Where is the story progressing? Add to it. Build on it. Give the readers more. Follow. Follow. Follow. Engage. Explain. Communicate. The writers who build a strong reader base are active and are engaging with the readers.

What headlines have worked? Have you found that clear, concise headlines work?

ORR: Very direct. Very direct headlines.

MT: So no curiosity gap, Upworthy-type headlines?

ORR: I think it’s gimmicky. The “you’ll never believe…” — I think that, to use a cliche that we should not use, but that’s jumped the shark. I really think so. Just tell me. I don’t want to be teased. Just be direct. Direct works. It doesn’t mean it can’t have fun. But just tell me what this story’s about.

We can’t write off SEO. People are proclaiming SEO is dead. SEO is not dead, SEO is important.

You have to think how’s it going to work on a different social media platform and also how’s it going to work when people are searching for a story. We can’t write off SEO. People are proclaiming SEO is dead. SEO is not dead, SEO is important. If you properly SEO a story, it’ll bring new readers to your site, which is important and so direct is best. And think about how readers would look for this topic. And we do pretty well. We’ve progressed quite well on that.

Have there been any major surprises?

ORR: I have to give that some thought. I would say, what it does it’s just eye-opening. It really communicates the importance of thinking of your story as more than just the written piece. It also makes you think about what you’re linking to, what your other content is, your related content, the linking to — I know we’ve been talking about this for a long time, but effectively linking is just so key because you can really drive people deeper and the metrics will show that.

MT: What is effective linking?

ORR: It’s when you can augment your story with useful links. For example, when you’re citing examples in a story, when you have links to those, hopefully on your site, people respond to that, and by studying the analytics, you can see what people will respond to and where to link.

The other thing that’s good too is having a relationship with other outside bloggers Not in your organization, but outside. You want your work to be read by other writers off-site, much like you read other writers and you develop those relationships. Then you can share audience. One site sends a lot of audience to this blogger, one blogger sends some over there. It’s just really important for that community.

What also helps, is that you develop these relationships with writers off-site then you start communicating over Twitter and you start communicating on different social media platforms, and that’s how you build community. And you see it with a number of writers from different organizations who are friends — that’s really important.

The “By the numbers” memo naturally consisted of a lot of numbers about pageviews, etc, — a lot of the general stats we expect to see. There’s been a lot of conversation about pageviews, likes, and shares and what engagement really means, and how they aren’t perfect proxies for reader engagement. Tony Haile, the CEO of Chartbeat, wrote this article in Time, not too long ago, about why what we think about web metrics isn’t really true. Clicks don’t really mean engagement. Shares don’t really mean engagement. It’s all about attention — which is obviously really hard to measure. Others such as Upworthy have suggested “attention minutes” and Medium uses “time spent.” What’s your take on which metrics matter?

ORR: First of all, I will say I read Tony Haile’s article completely, all the way through. I gave him more than 15 seconds. I read the whole thing. I thought it was outstanding.

It’s important. You do want people staying on your site and reading your article and that’s the nice thing about chartbeat — it tells you that they’re doing that. So I agree. There’s a lot of metrics that I’m very interested in. Of course we’re very interested in unique visitors, we’re interested in visitors, we’re interested in pageviews per visit, we love time spent on site.

Pageviews is fine too. But it’s an easy to digest metric. That’s all it is. There are a variety of metrics that are really important. We look at all of them. We, like everyone, certainly look forward to the day where we can all determine that this metric is the most important one and see it as such, but we’re not there yet. There’s a lot of them out there and we’re all trying to figure it out.

What are some overall lessons over this past year?

ORR: I think what’s most heartening to learn is that there is a big, big market for high quality journalism. And we’re proving that. If we look at the success of some of our signature stories and how well they’ve performed online, that’s awesome, that’s great. And when we look at how we can augment our stories with what the data desk does — the graphics, the maps, the databases, the analyses, it’s just outstanding what the digital platform allows us to do — it really is. It all works together.

I’m very optimistic about what we’ve been able to do here and that is providing the highest level of journalism and there’s a real market and there’s a real appetite for it.

  • Great article. Good questions, answered honestly. Thanks.

  • Jason Fonceca

    This was uber-informative, a great, real, honest look at a sizable digital journalism site.

    I help Evan Carmichael quite a bit and tons of the challenges and solutions mentioned here will either a) help us improve Evan’s content management or b) already has.

    Thanks so much for this, API & Jimmy.

  • Cody Faldyn

    Thank you for sharing this interview! I’m curious to know if the LA Times developed the “sharelines” widget as their own “top secret” website plugin or if there is such a code/plugin available for other webmasters to implement in their sites.

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