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Los Angeles Times: Story stacks

Story stacks
Creators: The Los Angeles Times
Summary: Uses a vast combination of visuals to explain issues loaded with facts, such as the country’s national monuments now under review.

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At the Los Angeles Times, the invention of simple templates called “story stacks” allows journalists to tell complex stories in ways that can be more effective than pages of text.

Here’s one example of this stack approach: A roundup of national monuments under review by the White House. A straightforward headline — “Here are the national monuments being reviewed under Trump’s order” — anchors the top of the page and is placed above a dominant visual, a grid made up of 16 small images.

Video, photos, graphics, social media embeds and other elements offer storytelling options to “provide a more digestible experience and keep an audience reading,” says Len De Groot, director of data visualization. These alternative story forms, also referred to as “Q&A stacks” “and “timeline stacks,” move away from the traditional long-form narrative.

Facts in the national monuments story, which became politically controversial, are presented simply. A short introduction provides context and emphasizes some key facts; for instance, that only monuments created since Jan. 1, 1996, will be part of this order.

Scrolling down through the story, readers can quickly scan through a labeled list, single images and short paragraphs. Updates at the end of the page show updates to the story.

De Groot estimates the L.A. Times has produced at least 100 stories using the stack templates, which were first launched in the newsroom in April 2017. Other stack-form stories that tackle controversial and complex topics include: a brief history of net neutrality, which highlights game-changing moments in a number of ways, including videos and social media posts; and a timeline that compares the U.S. and Chinese space programs, illustrated with photographs and timelines.

The L.A. Times “story stack” model.

Editor-in-Chief and Publisher Davan Maharaj and Deputy Managing Editor of Digital Megan Garvey “advocated creative storytelling for years before I arrived at the Times,” says De Groot. “I was brought in to rebuild a print-only graphics department as a digital team in 2013, and creative storytelling was a natural extension of those efforts.”

Staffers decide on whether to use a stack form for a story on a case-by-case basis. First and foremost on everyone’s minds: how to best tell a story so readers understand the underlying issue. “People will offer ideas, both visual and narrative, that may include the incorporation of data, video, social, lists,” says De Groot. “Format is not the primary concern, but if something is an obvious stack, like a timeline, that may be suggested.”

Buy-in from staffers to use alternative ways to tell complex stories is a non-issue, says De Groot, as “most journalists want as many people as possible to see their work and are eager to try things that prove effective.”

“Our engagement team has helped lead the efforts, trying to push people past thinking about a ‘stack’ to thinking how to tell stories in an unexpected ways.”

De Groot says the stack format “is among our most visited content every year. There’s usually at least one project that ranks among our top 10 stories each year — and several reach the top 20.”

Research on reading and visual processing, combined with analytics, have provided “insight into what prompts readers to engage. We try to use these tools to provide content in forms that a [majority] of our readers want.” 

Technical points and modifications: The Los Angeles Times uses a news story editor called SNAP (Simple News Assembly Platform). It simplifies the process of publishing online. “SNAP has a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editor, and writers are able to copy and paste the formatting to build out a story,” said De Groot. SNAP was built by the editorial staff on the Data Desk, explains De Groot, whose team built the story stack templates using this system. (The newsroom soon will be migrating to Arc, a content management system used by The Washington Post.)

De Groot’s team also set up a Slack channel called “#storytelling-911” particularly for troubleshooting. “It was important to address problems quickly,” he says, “so that reporters didn’t feel as though they had been pushed into water without a life vest.”

If you don’t have the resources to create a template, De Groot says much can be done without one. Breaking up a story into smaller chunks, or using photos, graphics and social media in order to explain it better, can be created with basic HTML, and can include subheads, lists and tables. “Having basic elements predesigned and readily available means reporters can focus on explanatory storytelling instead of design.”

Julie M. Elman

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