Los Angeles is a big place—400 square miles, 88 separate cities—and it's rare that what constitutes news in one corner even applies to another. For the first time in its history, the Los Angeles Times is recognizing this fact with an ambitious redesign that allows readers to zero in on what's happening down the street.
Launching as part of a May 6 rollout that starts late tonight is Neighborhoods, a new feature that pulls hyperlocal, geocoded news for almost 300 neighborhoods around the city. Using the mapping data from the LA Times Mapping L.A. project, which combined city data and user input to draw definitive boundaries for every neighborhood, each of the paper's stories are geo-tagged to a particular location within those neighborhoods. Each neighborhood then gets its own "front page" with all the news across the site that's relevant to that area. (Also included are those 88 cities within the city, like Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, as their own "neighborhoods.")
Even though readers appreciate the LA Times' regional focus, they always want to know what's going on in their neighborhood, says Ron Parsons, vice president of digital products for the Los Angeles Times. "So this is a natural fit for us and a great way for us to coalesce and aggregate some our great local coverage and information—news, crime and demographic information, restaurant and food reviews— in one place." The designers plan to add more hyperlocal information over time, such as school information, but in preparation for the redesign, stories have been geocoded for quite some time, so the Neighborhoods feature will launch with robust content.
The local focus is only one of the big changes that will start to roll out on the Los Angeles Times site today. They've also introduced something called visual browsing, a different viewing mode that lets readers scroll horizontally through stories using an image-driven design—more like an Instagram feed than a blog.
Studies found that, for better or for worse, many users—particularly younger ones—like to share content before they even read it. "They see teaser content like a compelling headline, or a great photo, and bam!— off it goes to Facebook or Twitter," says Parsons. "And while of course we'd love it if users actually get to that great article, photo, or column, even if they don't, we get the value of getting our brand out there, and of any traffic that comes from the share."
What's interesting about this is that the LA Times is now anticipating that there are many different ways that people choose to consume content, beyond just reading. In fact, they've organized the site around three different types of engagement, according to Matt Chmiel, senior content strategist at Code and Theory, the design firm recruited to work on the redesign. "So, for example, the site is better optimized for deep reading and commenting but it's also better for skimming or snacking on content—this is why we integrated visual browsing, as some people prefer a more visual experience to discover new content. We treat every visit seriously and wanted to deliver the best experience for the occasion."
The reading experience is enhanced in a few other ways as well. An infinite scroll—eradicating pages in favor of an endless stream of content—has been introduced to allow readers to keep discovering stories. But here, the site also provides a kind of choose-your-own-adventure twist, letting readers switch between sections in the scroll without disrupting the flow. Another lovely feature allows browsing of slideshows or videos in "slide-out" drawers found body of the story so readers don't need to reload a separate page away from the story itself to see imagery.
One of the biggest changes also aids the reading experience: The navigation bar has been moved to the left-hand side of the screen instead of placed across the masthead at top. This "persistent navigation" bar replaces the top-down "layer cake" mentality, which ended up pushing important content down the page.
Organizing the content along one side anticipates the many places that readers view content. "It works better in a responsive mobile device view; many dedicated mobile apps use this schema today, " says Parsons. "You can do things like collapse the navigation, horizontally scroll it, or add a second slide-out tray."
The left-hand bar also helps readers understand where they are at any time within the context of the larger site, says Chimel. "It demonstrates the broad scope of coverage that the LA Times offers its readers, and it helps define and differentiate their blog content in-line with their topical coverage," he says. "We learned from user testing that readers were very excited to be introduced to blogs and coverage they never knew were available on the traditional site."
Another bonus: Using this enhanced navigation paired with the Neighborhoods feature, it will be even easier to find out about something that happened just a few blocks away. [Los Angeles Times]
Disclosure: I've written for the Los Angeles Times as a freelancer in the past.
All images courtesy Los Angeles Times