In a recent long New York Magazine interview with Jon Stewart, the Daily Show host made an offhand reference to a man named Conrad Murray, whom many likely recognized as the doctor who was convicted of manslaughter for prescribing the pills to Michael Jackson that eventually led to the singer’s death. But if you’re like me, you either never knew the name or had long-ago forgotten it, and you would have either needed to open a new browser tab to Google Murray or, more likely, just kept reading the interview without getting the reference. But on this particular article, I noticed a red line under Murray’s name, and when I hovered over it a box popped up on the side of the page informing me of his significance.
In a media world where we’ve become obsessed with the phrase “explanatory journalism,” I found this feature to be a simple yet elegant way of providing contextual information without disrupting the flow of reading. It seemed particularly well suited for this kind of QandA interview, where the journalist can’t pause every few moments to explain something that Stewart just said.
According to Ben Williams, the editor of digital who oversees New York Magazine’s web content — including Vulture, The Cut, Grub Street, Daily Intel, and Science of Us — these explanatory footnotes are part of a larger effort to enhance the design and layout of New York’s feature articles.
Each week, Williams and his designers choose one of the feature articles set to appear in the print magazine, usually the cover story, and brainstorm ways they can add visual design elements that improve the storytelling process. This has become increasingly common at many publications ever since the launch of Snowfall, the multimedia story project produced by a team of New York Times journalists, designers, videographers, and coders. Though when I mentioned Snowfall, Williams was quick to note that New York Magazine’s forays into the medium are much less epic in scale. “It’s possible to build them with each issue and without overwhelming the team,” he said in a phone interview. “I don’t know how long it took to build Snowfall, but I imagine it was quite a long time. These are more manageable.”
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New York Magazine began to experiment with designs outside the normal scope of its content management system with the publication of a long feature story on former baseball player Derek Jeter. The story centered on Jeter giving access to a photographer to document his daily life, so it lent itself to a wider display of photographs, rather than confining the images to the much narrower section allocated for text.
The team then moved beyond just crisper images in October when the magazine published a story on the rise of drones. In addition to sprinkling drone-filmed videos throughout the piece, it also utilized animated gifs of cartoons hovering next to the story copy as you scrolled down.
“The footnotes are an outgrowth of this,” Williams explained. The magazine runs a regular feature about a half dozen times a year that consists of a long interview with a cultural influencer. “When you read these interviews, there’s a lot of in-depth conversation,” Williams said. “And we run them as transcripts. We can’t add an explanatory sentence. So this is a nice way to give people more context on the references that are being used. If you’re reading the Marc Andreessen interview and you’re not fully immersed in the world of venture capital then he’s kind of talking about things you don’t necessarily get, and the footnotes are the easiest way to explain it.”
So what’s the editorial process like for such a project? How does Williams decide which articles to give this treatment to? “Once we know what’s going to be in each issue, which might be a week before it goes to press, we’ll pick a story, and often it’s the cover. It’s usually the story that will be most impactful and a lot of people will read.” For stories where they want to add footnotes, the editor who works on the story and the writer who did the interview will make the decisions on which elements need to be explained more.
I asked Williams whether his team planned on building some of these tools into the CMS so they could be used more widely, but he said there were no current plans of doing so. In fact, he said, such multimedia offerings can become distractions from the main text of a piece if used indiscriminately.
It’s hard to determine how useful readers have found these new designs (other than my anecdotal observation that I found them informative). Williams said they aren’t measuring how many people are hovering over the footnotes. “In terms of the stories that we’re choosing for these treatments in general, they’ve been pretty successful in terms of traffic. They’ve almost always been our biggest stories on any given week. Now you can’t say necessarily that this is because of the design, it could just be the story itself that’s drawing readers. You don’t know. But certainly it’s paying off in terms of some of our most visible stories looking a lot better and they’re more pleasurable to read now, so hopefully that has some kind of traffic impact as well.”
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