News organizations across the globe fell in love with the New York Times’ so-called “immersive storytelling” format with the launch of Snow Fall in November 2012, while critics of the project said it wasn’t reproducible or scaleable. But long before Snow Fall came to fruition, folks at Vox Media — the company that brings us publications like The Verge, SB Nation and Polygon — were already perfecting a system to do similar layouts, reproducibly, with scale, on a deadline.
The company was born in a digital age, and it shows in the way their systems work. As I talked with Vox’s chief product officer Trei Brundrett, he had to correct my continual, habitual and incorrect usage of the phrase “content management system.” Brundrett calls their system a publishing platform, which, at its heart, has a CMS, but also has an editorial curation element, structured data, distribution tools, analytics, social and community tools.
“We built it from the ground up,” Brundrett said. “The company was actually founded by bloggers, so the DNA was blogging. A pure digital kind of mentality. We build a platform specifically to the needs of a sports blogging platform.”
And part of that system — and the one that intrigues me the most — is its dynamical, flexible templating system.
The layouts aren’t handcoded. And they don’t take six weeks of collaborations. And in many cases, it doesn’t even require the assistance of a web developer (of which they have 46, by the way).
“We’ve had editors get so good at it that it takes no longer than an hour, hour and a half,” Brundrett said. That includes deciding on a layout, adding photography, pullquotes, taking an editing pass and hitting publish. The most time-consuming part of it is the time spent polishing and editing.
So, how do they do it?
“We’re lucky we have an editorial team that’s hands on,” Brundrett said. “That’s what’s important about having the blogger DNA — they don’t already have the abstraction between what they’re making and how it shows up.”
The standard snippet library contains elements that are all responsive, so on mobile they will behave just as elegantly. The snippets provide a framework and standards for the editors, rather than giving them a wide open canvas. For the super complex features that require elements outside the standard mini-layout library, designers and developers can get involved to build out new functionality.
You can see a collection of SB Nation’s longform layouts at sbnation.com/longform. There are nearly 100 on this one site alone, plus another hundred on The Verge’s site and yet more on Polygon’s site.
Effectiveness of longform
So the question we all have about these beautiful layouts. Does it work? Is it more engaging? How do we know? Though Brundrett didn’t have exact numbers to provide, he said their numbers have grown and the audience has developed higher expectations for what they produce.