the transition to digital journalism

Topics Sections

One strategy for news organizations to compete in an environment in which narrow-interest competitors abound is to re-organize the content on their websites into topical sections, which are sometimes referred to as "verticals," "niche sites" or "shells."

Instead of trying to lure people to a home page with a variety of general interest news stories, sections of a news site are built out with deep content in each to serve the more particular interests of people within the publication's broader audience.

A topics section will feature not just news stories, but other kinds of information about a topic to give people a sense of context and continuity on the subject. Thus a topical shell will include a lot of "evergreen" content such as background information and searchable databases, as well a strong online community component so people with common interests have a place to gather online and discuss those interests.

One model for the topics pages approach is Wikipedia, which has subject pages that routinely show up at or near the top of search engine rankings for searches on particular topics.

Examples of topics sections:

  • BBC News' Special Reports on areas of continuing, in-depth news coverage by the BBC. These are topical shells with extensive background information.
  • The Seattle Post Intelligencer's Transportation section. (which continues even as the Post Intelligencer has discontinued its print product) In this section of the website you'll find live webcams of traffic conditions, traffic incident reports and links to other information on traffic and transit, as well as news stories.
  • The New York Times' Real Estate section that has multimedia stories, community guides and searchable databases on housing prices and building permits. See the Times' Auto section for similar features.
  • The New York Times also has started Times Topics which uses a similar approach with many other news topics. See, for example, the Times' Global Warming topic page. The Times Topics pages account for 2.5 percent of the Times' website's total pageviews. See this Nieman Journalism Lab story for more on the Times' topics pages.
  • The Spokane Spokesman Review has created Topics pages that provide background information on stories.
  • The Chicago Tribune has created hundreds of topics pages, although they only aggregate articles from the paper (see also this Nieman Journalism Lab story on how the topics pages are driving Google search traffic to the site).
  • The Associate Press is considering creating topical “news guide landing pages.” See the Nieman Journalism Lab posting about an AP memo on this plan.
  • Salon.com is similarly focusing its site on deep, rich article and topics pages (look for the "hot topics" link at the top of the home page).
  • Hearst Entertainment launched LMK.com, a topically organized site. See the PaidContent.org story on it.
  • The New York Times, The Washington Post and Google teamed up to produce topical Living Story Pages (see the articles about this at the Times, the Post and the Google Blog)
  • Oakland North, a local news site run by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, created a California's Education Budget Crisis section on reductions in state education funding and the protests against the cutbacks
  • The San Francisco Chronicle's SFGate site has topics pages that feature a Wikipedia summary of the topic, related stories from the Chronicle and other news sources and a Twitter feed.
  • The Davis Wiki organizes information about the city of Davis, California, by topic using a wiki platform to which anyone can contribute.
  • The Washington Post in September 2013 launched Topicly, a web page on which Post text stories and multimedia are organized by topics. See also the Washington Post press release on Topicly.

Here's what Martin Nisenholtz, senior vice president of digital operations at the Times, had to say about the Times Topics sections:

"..we are now grouping many of our articles in things we call 'Times Topics' (see the tab at the top of nytimes.com home.) This introduces a new taxonomy to our site, one that is based on persistent topics with links to resources under those topics, rather than the traditional section and article structure. This makes it much easier for our content to be found in search, as the engines can look at a single URL for any given topic.

"The development of our Topic architecture is a critical one for NYTimes.com"

Google's Living Stories

See also the testimony (pdf file) of Marissa Mayer, Google Vice President, at the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, on May 6. 2009, in which she discusses the "atomic unit of consumption" of news and praises the New York Times' Topics approach.

Mayer argues that news organizations need to focus on developing topical web pages that are "a consistent reference point that gains clout and a following of users over time," and where an "evolving story (is) published under a permanent, single URL as a living, changing, updating entity" with "obvious and engaging next steps for users."

Google worked with the New York Times and the Washington Post on this concept of "living stories" and then released the code for creating living story pages.

Other Advantages of Topical Pages

Salon.com is taking this approach at its site. At a UC Berkeley Media Technology Summit in September 2009, Salon Chief Executive Officer Richard Gingras said "'the core of the matrix'" for news outlets in making transactions is no longer an entire website but individual stories.

Because at least half of the audience on most websites arrives there after an Internet search, stories become much more attractive when they are enriched with articles, graphics, reader discussion and the like, Gingras said." (this summary of Gingras' remarks was in a Los Angeles Times story about the conference by James Rainey).

For more on Salon's approach see a webcast of Richard Gingras' presentation on Innovating Online News Publications at our December 2009 digital training workshop.

Also look at the approach taken by the hugely popular wikipedia, which embeds breaking news in the context and background for the topic that's in the news. See Matt Thompson's article on Wikipedia-ing the News at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

Young people in particular are interested in background information on a topic, especially if it's well organized, uncluttered and accompanied by visual elements like photos and graphics. See the Northwestern University Media Management Center study on "Teens Know What They Want From Online News: Do You?"

See also a 2008 study of 18 to 34 year olds by Context-Based Research Group that found they suffered from "news fatigue, meaning they were overloaded with facts and updates and had trouble connecting to more in-depth stories. Participants yearned for quality and in-depth reporting, but had difficulty immediately accessing such content."

On how to create a topics page, see our tutorial on Building a "Topics" Site with WordPress.

What's in a Topical Section

Besides stories, here are some of the elements that could be included in a topical section:

  • A summary narrative on the topic with basic background information. This can be a short item at the top of the main topic page, with a "more" button for additional material. See, for example, the "explainers" being produced by Mother Jones on topics in the news.
  • Databases and data visualizations of information related to the topic. Thus a crime page would have links to crime databases that people can explore by type or crime or location.
  • Timelines that provide historical context for the topic.
  • Maps for topics where location is an important aspect of the subject matter.
  • Additional resources on the topic, such as the websites for organizations that are active in the subject area. This gives people the opportunity to follow up on a story and act on it by getting involved (selective lists of resources also could be included at the end of each story, so people have the sense that there is something they can do about a news development).
  • Multimedia presentations, such as video or photo slideshows, on different aspects of a topic.
  • Games that provide an interactive way for people to engage with and learn about a topic.
  • Online polls to get a sense of community sentiment on the topic.
  • Comments or forums so people can discuss the topic. These can be at the end of each story or more general forums on the topic page.
  • Archives of previous stories on the topic.

Note: A special credit to Jane Stevens who has been recommending for many years that online news sites focus on developing topical sections (which she calls "shells"). See, for example, her August 2002 article for the Online Journalism Review on Web Shells: An Introduction.

Readings and Resources

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