Tracking best practices in the business of digital news

By Jake Batsell

Over the past 15 months, I’ve visited more than two dozen news organizations in the United States and United Kingdom conducting interviews for my book project, Engaged Journalism. And it should come as no surprise that on both sides of the Atlantic, managers of thinly-staffed newsrooms are fixated on boosting digital audience without blowing up the budget.

This summer, The Telegraph did just that with an interactive feature that was fun, compelling and wonderfully simple — and took only a few days to build. “How to spot a Stradivarius,” published in connection with an Oxford museum exhibit featuring 21 of the world-renowned violins, challenged users to listen to three short audio clips and see if they could pick out the fairest fiddle of them all. (Plug in your headphones and try it yourself; then we’ll talk shop below.)

Whether you guessed right or not, the Telegraph’s Stradivarius challenge provides a brainy five-minute escape and, perhaps, the impulse to pass the story along to a friend. If you nailed it, you might have experienced the same thrill as University of North Texas student Cynthia Green did when she took the challenge: “Not only did I have fun taking it, but I felt really fancy and sophisticated when I guessed the answers correctly.”

It wasn’t an epic game-changer in journalistic storytelling, but nearly 5,000 Telegraph readers were excited (or disappointed) enough to share their results by answering a poll, and scores more shared it via social media channels or reacted in the comments. When I spoke with members of the Telegraph’s interactive team last month in London, they said they considered the project a relative success, especially given the minimal staff time spent creating it.

“It’s not the best, by far,” said Telegraph online graphics editor Mark Oliver, who spent roughly half a week creating the feature. “But in terms of the amount of time that we spent building it, it was pretty successful, I think.”

Oliver and interactive news editor Conrad Quilty-Harper said they don’t have a fixed formula to gauge success. When a project goes live, they pay close attention to pageviews, social media shares and comment activity, as well as more subjective factors like the tone of the comments.

In building the Stradivarius feature, Oliver said the Telegraph’s aim was to appeal to novices and experts alike: “Is this going to be complicated for a 12-year-old kid to navigate their way through, or is it going to be easy? At the same time, for a classical music genius, is it going to be too basic for them to enjoy it?”

The news industry needs more quick, smart interactive hits like this that provide more digital bang for the buck. The New York Times’ much-admired “Snow Fall” was crafted by a 16-person team over the course of six months (although, of course, the interactive staff was simultaneously working on other tasks). When Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson was asked about Snow Fall’s ROI (return on investment) at last April’s International Symposium on Online Journalism in Austin, she quipped that the project’s ROI was that it turned “snowfall” into a verb to describe mesmerizing digital storytelling. As in, “Let’s snowfall that story.”

And indeed it has. Snow Fall won a Pulitzer and has since inspired successors like The Guardian and The Dallas Morning News to snowfall their own narrative projects. (Update: Conveniently enough, Times public editor Margaret Sullivan tackled the use-of-resources question today on her blog.)

Still, the resources versus return question is a critical one for any interactive project. Even the Times Idea Lab realized it made “mistakes” in failing to fully monetize Snow Fall’s success – and for its most recently snowfalled project, “The Jockey,” the Times built in custom ads from BMW.

Snow Fall has rightfully entered the lexicon of journalistic verbs. But at a time when newsroom resources are ever more precious, you don’t have to snowfall a story to meaningfully connect with your digital audience. Sometimes you can stradivarius the story and get a nice return, too.

Jake Batsell (@jbatsell), an assistant professor of journalism at Southern Methodist University, is spending the 2013-14 academic year as a Texas Tribune Fellow based in Austin.

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