Introducing a New Format for Evolving Stories

‘Smarticles’ aim to meet readers where they last left off.

Photo by Clodagh Kilcoyne for Reuters

With the relentlessness of the news cycle over the past few months, nobody can blame readers for feeling overwhelmed. It’s become almost impossible to stay up to date on the latest developments in the most recent ongoing news stories. But what if there was a smarter way of getting the latest news in an ongoing, incrementally developing topic?

The Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab is experimenting with a new story format that aims to provide readers an easier way to follow ongoing developing stories on mobile devices. This story format, named Smarticles (because it is smarter than an article!), breaks stories up into their core elements and presents the information as a series of blocks.

Here’s how Smarticles work: On a reader’s first visit to a story page, the blocks contain the most basic details and background, as text, embedded video, photos or social media posts.

As the reader returns to the page, the Smarticle will attempt to algorithmically determine which elements of the story are most useful to the reader based on a number of signals, such as the time passed since last visit, the frequency of visits, and the importance of each story development.

Readers will be offered a way to turn on notifications for each Smarticle, which will offer periodic prompts to return to that page to see the latest information. These notifications will be triggered by a critical mass of updates, decided upon by editors, or by a major development. The lab will experiment with the most appropriate wording for a notification that lands on a page that could be different for each user.

A Smarticle prototype from July 2017.

This format draws upon a number of earlier story experiments: News organizations, most prominently Circa, have previously looked at “atomization” of content as a way to deliver fast and digestible updates to a developing story. And in their own way, the now-familiar live blog, used by many outlets, provides an ongoing look at all the aspects, angles, and updates of a story as they emerge.

With Smarticles, the lab is experimenting with improving mobile-scannability of stories that have multiple updates over time and personalizing story elements for each reader based on their history with the story, aiming to meet readers where they’re at based on what they’ve read before.

For example, news organizations normally produce several articles about an ongoing story — one that takes several days to unfold, such as the incident earlier this year when a man was violently dragged off a United Airlines flight after he boarded in Chicago. Readers who had followed that story’s every twist and turn would not need to be reminded of the fundamentals (that a man was pulled off a plane at a Chicago airport) that are often included with each article that covers the story’s developments. Instead, they would have been likely to skim through that background to find the newest information.

Other readers, though, who first encountered the United story a few days in, would need the background and context that a later article may have lacked. The underlying Smarticle algorithm hopes to differentiate between these two readers and present them with a story that meets their needs.

Eventually, this experimental story format will also allow reporters and editors to approach stories as dynamic, living objects that can be updated over time. Rather than publish a new article for each new development in an ongoing story, a Smarticle needs to be updated with only new pieces of information while the necessary context remains.

For this first experiment, we’re using Trump’s statements about the death of American soldiers in Niger and the reaction to those statements as the topic. Because the algorithm is still in development, we’ll likely publish new information only once a day, in the afternoon, and notify users who opt in when there is a new version. We will also send a final notification after the experiment is finished prompting users to complete a survey, as we do with every experiment, to gauge its effectiveness with initial reactions and to set a benchmark for future tests.

This and other initial tests will be targeted to users of Android devices, using Chrome browsers so we can easily enable notifications, which are a key part of the format. (It will also work on Chrome browsers on desktop, and be visible in the Chrome app on iOS devices without the notifications.)

To take part if you’re on an Android device, open this link in a Chrome browser and opt in to receive alerts. Others may visit that page on desktop or iPhone, though they will not get the full experience.

We look forward to getting your feedback on the experience or the idea.

Smarticles are offered by the Guardian and built by the Guardian US Mobile Innovation Lab. The lab is a small multidisciplinary team housed within the Guardian’s New York newsroom, set up to explore storytelling and the delivery of news on small screens. It operates with the generous support of the John S and James L Knight Foundation.