Context is king.
That holds true everywhere we publish, analog or digital. Anyone can sling content — and on the web, everyone will — but an article out of context is no more useful than a printed book chock full of typed-out URLs, which would be screwy, intrusive, frustrating and a distraction from the reading I’d want to do. Context can elevate content, but the wrong frame can tear it down just as easily.
But what does context mean on the web? There’s no single answer, and that’s the very crux of the internet: The web is whatever we need it to be, just as water changes shape when poured into a new glass. The web is more than a medium for publishing or communications or commerce — it’s a customer service medium, and websites and services sprout to fill every possible need.
I’m going to limit the scope here to magazines, simply because, well, that and the web are what I know.
Let’s consider a printed magazine, maybe a small regional publication about a certain lifestyle, history and culture. You know the type, I’m sure.
Then flip to a section like, say, travel reviews, punchy little things with an overview and maybe a recommendation. Is a reader of this section looking for a new place to visit? Quite possibly. Sure, many folks read travel stories like fiction, as a way to mentally get away. But a lot of people clip out the intriguing destinations or save whole magazines for future reference. It’s a casual, mostly passive act: That sounds interesting, I’ll have to try it sometime.
So now this magazine’s next issue is going to press, and the web editors have a whole book full of stories to parcel out on the website. (This works in reverse, too, in a digital-first workflow, where the print editors must put web content onto a different platform with a different context.) The simple solution — and, sadly, the one I see way too often — is the cut-and-paste: InCopy to CMS to website to social media. Repeat. But what about context?
Let’s consider the travel section again, this time on the magazine’s website.
Don’t call me a reader or user, no, here I’m a hunter of information. I’m planning a trip and I’ve come to your website to do it. I know what I want: Someplace family-friendly, and outdoors, in a three-state radius; it’s only a long-weekend trip, plus the kids’ll kill each other if they’re in the car together for too long. Alright, I’ll click on the travel section and see what matches… What? A long list of travel-related magazine stories?
A magazine reader is not the same as a web user; it’s a casual vs. mission-driven act. On the web, I want those travel reviews sliced and diced, sorted and tagged; I want the facts; I want the metadata. And, without the space restrictions of print, why limit the review to a few paragraphs, a link and a photo? Tell me a story about the experience, relate to people, and encourage your community of readers to do the same. That’s how you build a useful web resource — and best serve your customers.
But enough about travel sections. What do you do with a feature? The default response these days — especially in magazines’ tablet editions — is, “Add multimedia!” And I’m not fundamentally opposed; why shouldn’t we take advantage of all the different ways to tell a story on the web? But it has to make sense. A video produced just to have a video doesn’t serve anybody. Multimedia have to add a new dimension to the storytelling.
I love the work of Jonathan Harris. In other hands, his latest project, Balloons of Bhutan, could have been a drab, text- and statistics-heavy story of a tiny nation. But by giving faces and voices to the men and women of Bhutan, he’s created something powerfully human, something printed words can never match. And that’s the best way to use multimedia on the web.
How about the feature itself? Often, the text of a good magazine story transcends the medium. You can (and should) add links, restore photos cut for space, spin off sidebars into full-bodied articles of their own, or even embed a YouTube video instead of describing it, but a compelling story — the core of the article — is no less compelling whether in print or on the web.
What’s so often left behind, though, is the design of the feature. Print designers don’t lay out stories just for fun. Great editorial design is as much a part of the story as the text: It sets the mood, elevates the drama, and inserts critical elements like photographs precisely when and where they’re needed. In short, the design adds context. When you funnel a story through a CMS into the same template as a 200-word blog post, you’ve lost all of that.
At the Chronicle, I’ve tried to champion, and web-ify, that ethos. In print magazines, I love the full-bleed photos, the careful typography, the feeling you get when you open up a gorgeous spread.
Why can’t I feel that way when I read a web feature, too?
Long live context. Long live the king.
It’s no secret: The Baseball Chronicle isn’t just a celebration of baseball and the narrative. It’s also a place for me to experiment with the latest in web design and development.
I’m a tinkerer by nature, and the Chronicle has become, perhaps even more than this site, that with which I tinker. After months of reading about HTML5, CSS3 and @font-face, I started on a redesign incorporating all of them. What better way to learn? What good is unapplied knowledge?
So after I read Ethan Marcotte’s spectacular “Responsive Web Design” at A List Apart, of course I had to implement it at the Chronicle. I’d long thought about creating a mobile version of the site, but it always seemed excessive. I didn’t need to add content or functionality for mobile users. The site simply needed to be a little more usable for readers with small screens. Enter media queries:
Rather than quarantining our content into disparate, device-specific experiences, we can use media queries to progressively enhance our work within different viewing contexts.
I started in July on a rudimentary responsive front page, but vacation and other happenings shelved the project until mid-August, while designing “Sunday Fly,” the second story of the bespoke era. (As part of the redesign, I create original designs for every story, using Movable Type logic to search for and apply a style sheet whose name matches the post’s title. Pre-redesign posts, as yet lacking custom styles, inherit a base design.) I tack on the responsive code to the end of each post’s style sheet.
The responsive styles for “The Man on the Mound” begin:
@media screen and (max-width: 750px)
Screens less than 750 pixels wide receive any subsequent styling, which eliminates
floats, resizes type and margins, and adds many a
width: auto;. The effect is a legible and usable design at any screen size, across devices, without a dedicated mobile subdomain or new style sheet.
Look, I love the SI Vault.1 But the reading experience induces headaches. If the tiny Verdana type2, flashing advertisements and general cruft don’t do it, then clicking through 11 pages to read a single Gary Smith story surely will.
Without Readability or Safari Reader, I struggle to finish even the most compelling stories. And that’s a shame. I’d readily pay for access to a well-designed Vault with a usable search function and logical architecture. (Oh, to easily browse by writer!)
But alas, for now I can only hope for something better.
 When I can get to and stay at the Vault, that is. First: Why does the homepage link, labeled “THE VAULT” right there in the banner, lead instead to the App Store listing for the magazine’s iPad app? How does that make any sense? Instead users must poke around for alternate entry points, head to a search engine, or manually enter the URL (if they know or guess it). Is a few more apps sold worth the frustrating user experience?
And second: Why send me away, again to the App store, when I try to read stories from recent issues? When I click a link that says, “Read all articles,” I expect a table of contents, and nothing else. Even if I were browsing the Vault on an iPad, this sort of deception wouldn’t be right.
 I’ll warn you now, don’t touch that text-size widget; the hideous result is far worse than the original. In fact, every article on SI.com sports tiny, sans-serif type. Who enjoys reading that?