News Catalyst
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News Catalyst

Redesigning with purpose: InvestigateWest’s new website design creates opportunities for storytelling

News organizations are constantly balancing usability and aesthetics in the presentation of digital content. Favoring one side too heavily can detract from the journalism itself, whether it’s because the content’s presentation does too much or not enough to engage audience members. The rising use of interactive, audio and visual content to present complex stories has only heightened the need for balance, making it imperative for news organizations to carefully consider how they present content.

As they weighed this question, InvestigateWest, an investigative news organization based in Seattle, Washington, decided to redesign their website last year to expand their capacity for presenting audio, visual and data-driven stories.

“Our website hadn’t been updated in a number of years,” said Allison Augustyn, the executive director of InvestigateWest. “It became very clear that design matters to our readers and usability matters to us, but I had a lot of questions about the kind of technological support we’d need to improve these areas.”

The relationship between CMS and design

InvestigateWest’s website uses WordPress as a CMS. WordPress powers nearly 40% of all websites worldwide and is widely used among news websites. Part of its appeal comes from its expansive array of plugins, which are used to expand the functionality and customization of their websites. Plugins can perform functions like improving a website’s ability to track analytics, share content and prevent security breaches. WordPress also offers thousands of available themes, making it easy for a news organization to try out different layouts and designs without creating them from scratch.

InvestigateWest’s website used a WordPress theme called Largo, which the Institute for Nonprofit News designed specifically for news publishers. The version of Largo used for InvestigateWest’s website was outdated, making it difficult for them to use the theme to support their goals of publishing more custom story presentations and experimenting with different types of media.

The previous homepage had three main sections (left: the top of the homepage, middle: the midsection of the homepage, right: the bottom of the original homepage)

News Catalyst partnered with InvestigateWest last fall to answer questions they had regarding digital security, artificial intelligence and web design, like if they could continue using the Largo theme to meet their new presentation goals or if they should switch to a different website theme.

Switching WordPress themes is less intensive than switching to a different CMS altogether, but it is still an involved process because WordPress themes affect how a website functions in addition to how it looks, said Tyler Fisher, deputy director of technology for News Catalyst. News Catalyst ultimately recommended that InvestigateWest switch to a WordPress theme called Salient, which was designed by ThemeNectar. Salient comes with a greater flexibility for building and designing pages, which would make it easier for InvestigateWest to publish audiovisual content and create unique layouts for more involved stories.

“What’s really nice about Salient is you can use their building blocks to design whatever you want,” Fisher said. “It’s worth noting that doing so takes some design skill, so you need to know some general design principles before creating your web page.”

Using plugins for Salient, InvestigateWest has added features to their website like larger photos, a glossary for the scientific terms used in their stories and audio readings of their stories, Augustyn said.

“It’s beautiful,” Augustyn said. “Salient is endlessly usable. On the back end, it’s very easy to upload and update stories, and it’s just so much cleaner.”

Switching WordPress themes can usually take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, especially if a news organization has more than a decade of published content like InvestigateWest. However, InvestigateWest was able to switch themes over the course of one weekend because they received help from a team of coders through Seattle GiveCamp, a nonprofit organization that provides technological support to nonprofits in the Seattle area. Other news organizations hoping to switch WordPress themes do not have to enlist a team of coders to help them because changing themes doesn’t involve writing code, Fisher said. However, receiving help from a graphic designer may be useful, he added.

The new design maintains the visual impact of the hero image while added imagery to the other stories linked on the homepage. The middle and lower sections are now used to guide the audience to additional content.

Redesigning for the right reasons

InvestigateWest has received only positive feedback on the design of their website since switching WordPress themes, Augustyn said. They have also experienced more engagement with their stories, but this may be because they are doing more collaborative work with other news organizations, she added.

“It’s been a huge team boost and point of pride,” Augustyn said. “We’re a digital-only outlet, so it’s even more important to make sure that what you’re seeing on the screen is beautiful, understandable, approachable and makes you proud of the product.”

In the future, InvestigateWest wants to continue advancing their digital strategy by incorporating more data visualizations in their stories and publishing videos on their data collection methods. This will help them teach other journalists and promote transparency in their reporting, like explaining how journalists file FOIA requests, Augustyn said.

The success of InvestigateWest’s website redesign underscores how important it is for news organizations to ensure their digital content is both compelling and user-friendly.

“It’s great when you can pull off a really powerful visual story, but I think the journalism world holds them up a little too much,” Fisher said. “I’m not convinced that those stories necessarily have more journalistic impact or reach more people.”

Newsrooms with similar goals as InvestigateWest should ask themselves why they want to pursue more complex audiovisual storytelling and whether this will help them produce more impactful journalism, Fisher said. Redesigns should be motivated by a desired outcome, like creating a more interactive experience for readers or visualizing data that is otherwise hard to interpret. For example, InvestigateWest’s goal was to make their storytelling more immersive and provide information in a way that appeals to a wider range of people, regardless of factors like their age, learning style and personal preferences.

News organizations should consider redesigning their websites if their current design is interfering with their business goals, like preventing them from increasing their newsletter subscribers, or storytelling goals, like preventing them from pursuing visual-driven storytelling, Fisher said. A redesign may also be helpful if your current website is slow, does not work on mobile devices or is otherwise hindering your users from accessing your content, he added.

“We’re a digital-only outlet, so it’s even more important to make sure that what you’re seeing on the screen is beautiful, understandable, approachable and makes you proud of the product.”

In April, Local Media Association recognized InvestigateWest with the first place prize for best local website in its 2020 Local Media Digital Innovation Awards. The LMA describes this award stating that judges consider “all aspects including user and customer experience, site design and organization, brand continuity, content, use of photos, graphics and video, opportunities for user engagement, presentation of advertising, mobile adaptability, and more.” The judge’s comment for the InvestigateWest’s placing noted that InvestigateWest’s website was “visually driven, easy to navigate and responsive.”

“We’re so grateful for the recognition of our website redesign,” Augustyn said. “It takes tremendous strategic planning to map out information — especially information dating back 12 years — and we were grateful that our time and effort translated into something beautiful and readable for our audiences that Local Media Association journalists also recognized as valuable.”

Amelia Winger is an editorial fellow for News Catalyst and a student at Temple University. She is the digital managing editor for The Temple News, Temple’s student newspaper, and news director for WHIP Radio, Temple’s student radio station.

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