AMP Stories: A visual experience

Our last segment for Innovation in Focus was the AMP story we built on paragliding in Columbia. If you are familiar with AMP technology, you may know AMP stands for Accelerated Mobile Pages, a Google project designed as an open standard for publishers to have pages load quickly on mobile devices. AMP stories is a platform to build primarily visual experiences, where you click through a series of images and video with possibly some text mixed in.

Take a look at our story on paragliding over Columbia, at USA Today’s Beyonce: Running the World or the San Francisco Chronicle’s Camp Fire Visual Essay to get a feel for the storytelling platform.

Evan Wagstaff is an interactive developer building projects and newsroom tools at the San Francisco Chronicle.

Innovation Lab producer Travis McMillen talked with Wagstaff to learn about how they use this platform for their journalism.

McMillen: So first, what is the difference between AMP content and AMP stories?

Wagstaff: The AMP project was spearheaded by Google to create this form of content that because it adheres to their guidelines, just loads faster, you’re only allowed to use their special HTML AMP images and AMP video. If you want to get placed highly in Google search rankings, you have to abide by their format. The AMP story is a subset of that content geared towards visuals and interactive. It’s akin to the Snapchat story.

McMillen: Are you possibly trying to play into that market, or appeal to that demographic or those users?

Wagstaff: Exactly. It’s just another form of storytelling. I think Washington Post is the first one that really caught our attention as far as the kinds of stories that could be told using a slideshow format, but in a beautiful presentation which then gets the added search stream from Google. We were really interested in exploring that as well.

McMillen: How do you think this compares to the Snap stories and Instagram stories?

Wagstaff: The advantage this has over all of those is that this is just on the web. You don’t need to be in an app. You can view it on your phone from a browser. You can view it on your desktop. You can share it around. It’s extremely accessible. I think that’s the leg up Google AMP stories has.

McMillen: If a newsroom were to start using this tech, what would it need? What’s the first step?

Wagstaff: Well, it did help to have a developer at the outset to figure out where you need to match this very strict AMP spec of course. You need to know the HTML tags that work and what doesn’t work. You have to learn how to validate your stories once you publish them to make sure that they are registering with Google spec, and they won’t be kicked out of their AMP content feed. Once you have that down, and we’ve templatized that, you will have a pretty good rhythm.  Now our visuals team can take the lead and build these out in a spreadsheet where each row becomes a slide.

McMillen: Could one person do it, in a small newsroom environment?

Wagstaff: It probably helps to have maybe two people working on it. If you were given the tools, maybe, but it would be tough. This is probably a week or two week project for me.

McMillen: Oh wow! So not a simple process from the outset? 

Wagstaff: I wouldn’t say it’s completely plug and play at this point. Assembling a single AMP story is not a ton of work, but assembling the pipeline to push it out in a routine fashion is a little more work.

McMillen: OK. Could it work with a one-off project? Or in order to find an audience with this, do you need to do it regularly?

Wagstaff: You don’t need to build up authority exactly. I’d say the most successful AMP stories are hinged off news that is happening right now. For example, when the Guerneville floods were happening here in California. People couldn’t get out. That was one of our most successful AMP stories because everyone was wondering what is happening in Guerneville.

McMillen: In general, what’s the response been to your AMP stories?

Wagstaff: We get incredible traffic and incredible response to the stories that are developed as the news is breaking. When the camp fires were happening, we put together an AMP story and we got an incredible response from that. We put together an AMP story with our vanishing violence enterprise news package and people really responded to that. It’s hard to know what people are going to be interested in when they’re typing words into their search bar.

McMIllen: What do you think is next in the AMP stories platform?

Wagstaff: One of the things we’re struggling with is to get institutional buy-in for it. It has been a newsroom effort between the visuals team and working with me to get these stories ready to go. We don’t have the advertising support, or the subscription support we need to make these part of our regular content flow. We don’t get any ad revenue from them. We don’t get any subscriber flow through them.

McMillen: So right now, it is not about the bottom line. Is there even a way to monetize it at this point?

Wagstaff: There is a way. The ad team is great about making these channels possible, but because they have such a tight spec, it requires development through their system and our corporation. They look at the numbers, and they say, “Well yeah, you get a lot of traffic, but we don’t know how many of those visitors are engaged enough to subscribe, so it’s not worth our development time.” I think as we continue to develop these and they continue to be some of the best performing content on our site, I think that equation might change.

McMillen: Why are you personally passionate about it?

Wagstaff: I love a good web experience. Anything that is not bogged down with ads and pop-ups, I’m all for that. Beyond just creating a really nice experience for our readers, it’s also another great way for our visual team to showcase their work. Whereas before they had to thread their content into a text story. This can be mostly about the visuals. The text is almost secondary.

McMillen: Is there anything you feel is missing? Is there something about it that’s not quite there yet?

Wagstaff: That’s a good question. I feel like maybe there’s a space for interactive graphics that just isn’t there yet. I feel like the nature of cropping works for photo and video, and your brain fills in the rest. For interactive graphics, you really do need to see the whole graphic.

McMillen: So keeping the smaller newsroom teams in mind, any advice on getting started?

Wagstaff: I engineered the system that works for our team. If anyone is interested in it, I would encourage them to reach out to me. I can help them figure out how to implement that kind of system on their team. I think what is lacking on the google side, is some kind of tooling to make the generation of these stories easier. I think that’s something they’re working on right now.

McMillen: Thank you for your time!

Wagstaff: I’m happy to help. It’s a new format. It’s exciting, but it’s hard to get started, so I’m definitely happy to help.

Editors note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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