Using interactivity to place the reader at the heart of a story

Sam Joiner
Jan 25 · 8 min read

At The Times and The Sunday Times, we want our digital subscribers to spend as much time as possible enjoying our journalism and to feel something when they do — whether that’s informed, entertained or a combination of both.

To do this we are focused on making reader “engagement” a priority metric for the newsroom, rather than page views or subscription growth (which is where we let our colleagues in marketing run the show).

This has been an exciting development for us as an interactive team. We know that interactive elements allow readers to discover things in a way traditional media — pictures, words, videos and static graphics — cannot, but they can also be a great tool for engagement.

From writing new code to bespoke designs and device testing, interactive journalism is time-consuming and expensive to produce, however, requiring multiple teams and lots of planning.

To justify our investment, we have been thinking more closely about which ideas deserve our attention. Naturally, we concentrate on high-value stories — be that evergreen explainers, exclusives or datasets rich with detail — but to make the most of our focus on engagement, we have been thinking about what sort of interactivity leads to the highest engagement rate.

Inspired by Elliot Bentley’s brilliant article on what interactives can do that articles can’t, we decided to take his idea of placing the reader within the data and use it as a basis for deciding when we might add interactivity more broadly.

The results have been great: in 2018, our average engagement rate for graphics that require actual reader interaction hovered at about 30 per cent, meaning a significant number of our readers communicated, discovered or learned through interacting with our work.

What follows is a seven-point checklist of ways you can place a reader at the heart of your journalism. It is worth noting that projects don’t have to tick all of them and there are other reasons why we would decide to add interactivity.

But this is now a decent starting point for our discussions and one that we can be relatively confident leads to success (or as confident as one can be when working in journalism!). I hope you find it useful.

1. Tailor content for readers depending on the story

One way we’ve placed the reader at the heart of the story has been to change the way we show interactives. Rather than running alongside stories in standalone pages, we have switched to embedding our work directly in articles over the past year.

One benefit has been a more seamless introduction to interactive content. Rather than having a single results page for the US midterms, for example, we added all of our charts and maps to articles written by US correspondents Jacqui Goddard or David Charter, picking the states we showed depending on their focus.

This approach also allows us to tailor what a reader sees depending on the article in question. For this year’s January transfer window, our aim was to create an interactive the sports desk could tweak depending on the story in question.

Reading an article about Mauricio Pochettino being linked with Manchester United? Let’s default our interactive in the piece to Tottenham so you can see just how little money they’ve spent over the past few years.

There are often no clear trends to draw from the January window, which can make a standalone page unappealing. We do know, however, that fans are more likely to read stories on their club, and this approach allowed us to personalise the data a reader sees, hopefully increasing engagement in the process.

Bespoke maps were created for Jacqui Goddard’s article on Florida’s inordinately slow counting

2. Engage with readers directly

When Britain voted to leave the EU there was a clamour at The Times to create a big, all-conquering interactive that explained everything to readers.

We were concerned, however, that the picture was changing too quickly and feared that by the time we had finished the project we would have to update the whole thing again.

Instead, we wanted to see if we could engage with our readers directly, taking the colossal subject that is Brexit and discussing it with them in a more personal way.

A close inspection of the comments below our Brexit stories revealed lots of readers asking similar questions — will I still be able to travel abroad for free? What will Brexit mean for the price of food? — so we created an interactive carousel of answers to the most popular questions which also prompted readers to ask us their own.

The best questions were sent to Oliver Wright and Henry Zeffman, two of our Brexit correspondents, with their answers emailed directly to readers, most of whom were delighted with the personal message.

We want The Times and The Sunday Times to feel like an exclusive club that you join and want to tell your friends about and this was a simple, effective way of using interactivity to make readers feel like they were getting the most from their subscription.

3. Guide readers through complex data

Sometimes our stories are based on analysis which can be complicated for readers to understand. Whether we build charts which highlight specific data points on scroll or use graphics to help bring ratios and percentages to life, interactive elements can be a great way to simplify complex data. This can often be done in a way that both guides readers through a dataset and places them within a story.

For a Sunday Times exclusive on poor police performance, we built a map and postcode search that allowed readers to discover what the solved crime rate was in their area.

The search featured a barcode chart which placed the reader’s local solved crime rate alongside all other local authorities in the UK, contextualising their ranking in the process.

The results also presented our methodology page, allowing our most engaged readers to discover more about the research.

The crime map interactive was added to every article in the series, and 33 per cent of readers who read the stories searched for a postcode.

4. Localise a national story

A postcode in an ambulance response times story allowed readers to discover the response times in their area

News stories tend to pull out a top figure or line which is of national interest. Interactives give us the chance to take that figure and make it interesting on a local level, placing the reader within the dataset and making it directly relevant to them.

A Times investigation into ambulance response times in the UK was the perfect opportunity to do this. It outlined that almost all trusts were failing to reach dying or critically ill patients fast enough and that missed targets were at a record high.

To run with the story, we built a simple postcode search which showed a huge amount of data to readers: the average response time in their area, how that compared nationally and how it had changed over time. On top of this, we displayed the response time for the top ten most common callouts.

Eighty-seven per cent of readers who read the article entered a postcode to reveal the picture in the areas they cared about.

5. Learn about our readers

Sometimes adding interactivity can teach you a lot about your readers and inform your future reporting in the process. For the 2017 general election we had a long discussion around whether adding a postcode lookup to our constituency search was a good use of our time (bearing in mind the election had been called six weeks prior to polling day).

We reasoned that most Times readers viewing an election results page would know their constituency, but also felt this was a good opportunity to test that theory on a large scale given the likely volume of traffic. The results were interesting: 30 per cent of readers who landed on the page searched for a constituency, with 10 per cent searching for a postcode.

It was a higher proportion than we had anticipated and going forward we have included a postcode lookup in almost all of our constituency searches.

6. Challenge preconceived notions

Often, readers are unaware of their own preconceptions. Our articles are here to inform, guide and educate subscribers, but we can also use interactives to challenge them. A story on the rise in modern slavery cases in the UK gave us a good opportunity to test this.

A slider was added to the story asking readers the relatively simple question: How many slaves do you think there are in Britain today?

This immediately placed the reader within the story, making them think about a question that may not have any immediate relevance to their day-to-day life.

The results detailed the extent of modern slavery in the UK, allowing readers to learn in the process of interacting with the slider.

As an extra feature, the average reader guess was added to the results so that readers could see how they compare to fellow subscribers. Twenty-four per cent of readers who read the article used the slider.

7. Create reader-focused datasets

For a recent project on divorces, The Sunday Times commissioned an exclusive survey of men and women on the reasons for their break-up to shed some light on how attitudes towards divorce have changed in the UK.

We were confident that subscribers who took part in this survey would want to know how their answers compared to other readers, but also that the results would be interesting to a broader audience. To take advantage of this, we built an interactive to bring the the results to life, allowing readers to search using the categories in the form and using visualisations to present them to readers.

The engagement rate was impressive: 43 per cent of readers who read the article viewed the results using the interactive and (interestingly) there were more searches by women in every category apart from the over 65s (make of that what that you will!).

This was a simple, effective way of using interactivity to place the reader at the heart of a story and create a loop which helped keep them engaged.

Digital Times

Stories from the digital team at The Times and Sunday Times

Sam Joiner

Written by

Interactive News Editor, The Times of London

Digital Times

Stories from the digital team at The Times and Sunday Times