SND STL Review, Part One

SND STL LogoWhen your hometown is in the Midwest, you generally don’t expect to get the opportunity to fly there often for amazing, cutting-edge, technology and designy events.  I was surprised that SND, the Society for News Design, was having their annual event in St. Louis, but even more surprised when I looked at the line-up and saw that it was quite a visionary event, with speakers from Zite, Font Bureau and The Boston Globe and incredible folks like Josh Clark, Charles Apple, Dave Gray, and Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson giving talks and speaking on panels. Every time I looked at the schedule I got excited. Plus the SND STL website was one of the best conference sites I’ve ever seen.

SND STL website

So here’s a brief overview of the event:


I had signed up for a pre-conference workshop on data visualization. Having done a graduate course last year in designing and creating data visualizations, I wasn’t sure how much of it would be duplicate, but I figured I could use a refresher. Plus the workshop speakers were from The New York Times, Duke University and Investigative Reporters and Editors, so these were people with some unbelievable backgrounds and experiences.  The workshop was really good, and I walked away with some very useful resources.  We spent time in Excel of course, but also Google Fusion Tables & Google Refine.  We took a look at several open source tools I hadn’t heard of to better parse and massage data.  Lastly we looked at some public projects from US news websites and their blog entries or overviews of how they built their solution. 

Here is a list of some of the resources we walked through, I hadn’t heard of several of them so it was really helpful for me. – Sparkline graphic generator – Tool for fixing addresses – pinboard site of Derek Willis (one of the instructors, works at NYT), lots of useful links – Open source map design software – cool tool for extracting from PDFs — raphael.js — nice small charting svg library in js, used to make the NYT voting result maps – slick example of using some svg charts live on NYT site  — backbone.js – allows you to persist data & update it in real time based on user interaction — Mr. Data converter: csv or tab-delimited data & export as various formats – comes with some nice examples to show you how to use it – Cool Twitter timeline setter demo – List from Instructor Derek Willis of links used in class – Links used in another conference session which are relevant here too


Some awesome data & tools blogs to follow from news sites are:
Propublica Nerds Blog –
The Guardian Data Blog – 
NY Times’ new beta620 labs site – Labs blog:
LA Times Data Desk:
The Texas Tribune Data:
Data Journalism blog:

(note: these links all work & are correct as of October 6, 2011)



The first day of the conference started with a latte and pumpkin gooey butter cake (a St. Louis specialty) from Park Avenue Coffee around the corner from the venue. One thing I learned: journalism conferences do not have the abundance of coffee and baristas that I’m used to with tech conferences!

TweetMobile & Tablet Research Roundup – This was an overview of tablet and mobile research by Roger Fidler & Regina McCombs. Some interesting stats from thinkMobile & Google research on how people are using smart phones

89% use it to stay connected
82% use it to read news and research
75% use it to navigate
65% use it to keep entertained
45% use it for management and planning

Their research also showed that GPS is one of the most important features for smart phone users, and good apps should incorporate it appropriately. Social media comes in second in terms of feature importance.

For news sites, having usable mobile capability typically adds 10-20% to traffic. However the number is greatly affected in disaster or breaking news scenarios. As an example, had 13.9 million mobile page views during the Japanese tsunami this year.

Tablet sessions are long, 58% of people use it for an hour at a time, 30% use it for > 2 hours at a time. Daily.

What are they doing on the tablets? Using engaging, longer form, higher production value applications like games, magazines and video. Newspapers like the Daily Telegraph found tablet owners are not generally interested in breaking news, more interested in more detail and interactive pieces.

Regina posted notes from the research & sources here:

TweetFun101 — A strange title for a talk at a news design conference, but Fun101 with Tim Harrower was one of the best sessions I went to. Tim had amazing ideas on how to engage readers, keep them interested and get them to have fun. Which is especially relevant today with so much depressing news. Ideas Tim mentioned included things like predicting awards shows ahead of time, fun quizzes, games to tell news stories, using comics to explain difficult or complex stories, and a lot more. I’m not seeing his slides online, but you should definitely check out his website for excellent and thought-provoking ideas and content:

TweetDesigning Personalized Tablet News – This was a panel with Bobby Ghoshal from Flud, Mark Johnson from Zite & Joey Marburger from Trove. It was a good panel where each aggregator talked about their decisions on multiple platforms, how much setup to give the user (i.e., do you seed them with feeds, let them choose, etc.), how they allow users to share, revenue streams and more. My takeaway from this was that these are in a dangerous spot as they rely a great deal on the lack of pay walls or a system to integrate with news sites. The aggregators don’t want to do a ton of work for each site they allow their users to access so the tougher a news site’s pay wall, the more likely the aggregators won’t include it. Having just seen the fantastic film Page One: Inside the New York Times, I fear what could happen if everyone stops paying for news or thinks they’re entitled to quality reporting for free forever. So while the aggregators do provide eyeballs, it seems there needs to be money changing hands somewhere for people to be able to use these apps. All three apps are currently free, but it doesn’t seem to be a sustainable model.

TweetKeynote Speaker: Rob King – Rob King, VP & Editor-in-Chief of ESPN Digital Media gave a fantastic talk on dealing with change in your personal and professional life. My favourite quote: “It’s going to work out, you just don’t know how yet.” Brilliant.

TweetDesigning the Magazine and Issue-based Tablet Experience – This talk was given by Mike Schmidt from The Daily, Claus Enevoldsen from Next Issue Media and Robert Newman from Reader’s Digest. Very good session on the tools they use, how they spend their time and production flow. I was terrified to learn that at The Daily, there are 50 people on just the design team, and that they have no automatic templates so every day they handcraft over 100 pages. Then they do it again in portrait mode. Yikes.

TweetTouching News: The New Rules of Tablet Media – This session was one of the ones that made me sign up for this conference. I read Josh Clark’s book Tapworthy earlier this year and loved it. Josh had some of the best slides of the event, but he also automated his Twitter account to tweet additional interesting blurbs about his talk as he was speaking. Magic! Josh had excellent UI tips, usability and interaction examples, and was basically all around brilliant. Excellent speaker – go listen to him if he’s speaking near you any time soon. His beautiful slides are here:

TweetBuilding in HTML5 & Bypassing Native Apps – I loved this session, not just a little because one of the developers from The Onion was speaking. Alan Herzberger from The Oklahoman & Michael Wnuk from The Onion gave very honest overviews of why they chose to build with HTML5 instead of iOS and their internal processes that happened for design, development, CMS modification, etc. Very interesting and candid discussion about the pain they went through, what works and what doesn’t. 

TweetVisual Conceit: The Secret Ingredient of the Secret Ingredient – Adonis Durado has a tough job. As Design Director of two newspapers in Oman, he works with designs and layouts in both English and Arabic and has to deal with a very reserved audience where showing skin to get more readers is not an option. Adonis talked about creating pages and layouts that make people think and surprise them. He showed a lot of examples of his papers’ compelling designs and “Wow factor” creations. He cited hiring a diverse team with different backgrounds and voices as one of the defining factors of his successful transformation of the papers from unknown to award-winning. His hand-out from the talk is here:



There were so many great talks, every session was a tough decision but I was quite happy with how much I learned.  Links to other speakers plus slides and blogs can be found here: