NBC News, Washington Post, SmartNews apps retool content packaging ahead of midterms

News apps and aggregators are gearing up for the U.S. midterm elections on Nov. 8 by rolling out new features to help readers, with the goal of improving the way election updates and information are packaged.

The features range from offering more personalized news to more immediate updates and visuals in app feeds. Here’s what aggregator SmartNews and publishers NBC News and The Washington Post are adding to their apps:

SmartNews: Personalized local election news

SmartNews is offering more personalized content blocks ahead of Election Day. On Oct. 6, the news aggregator app brought back its Elections channel tab for the midterms. But this year, as a user scrolls down SmartNews’ feed, they will get five to eight themed blocks of content with personalized recommendations based on data SmartNews has collected on that user, such as their location and interests they follow. For example, if a user follows reproductive rights, they will be served a content block on abortion as a key issue in the midterms, said Chuck Lee, director of product management at SmartNews.

In mid-October, SmartNews started rolling out the “unified feed block” feature in the main channel of the app to package content around key topics and events, rather than just having a feed of individual stories from different sources. And the “top story” block on SmartNews’ main channel will soon be dedicated to the midterms. Leading up to the elections, a “Midterm Elections 2022” block will show which way the Senate and House are leaning, and on Election Day this will be replaced with a results tracker showing the vote counts as they come in.

This year, SmartNews users will also have the ability to filter maps showing which states and districts are leaning right or left. Vote trackers will show results for the House, Senate and Gubernatorial races (at the national, state and district level), with seat chart visuals.

NBC News: Improved content packages

NBC News rolled out updates to its app three weeks ago to have more flexibility with the way content is packaged and surfaced around a key news topic. 

Previously, NBC News’ app surfaced stories through section packages, such as “related stories” or “latest stories,” and were limited to roughly five pieces of content that could be packaged together, said Matt Grimson, assistant managing editor of platforms and social for NBC News and MSNBC. The setup made it difficult to highlight the full breadth of coverage around big news events in the app, Grimson said. 

Now, NBC News can create “hero packages” to highlight the big news story of the day at the top of the app. Leading up to the midterms, the package’s headline will be “Election 2022,” with bullet points showing related stories within that block, Grimson said. On Election Day, NBC News will have content packages around House, Senate and Gubernatorial elections, as well as other key races. Stories can also now be labeled and tagged to highlight exclusives, breaking news and developing stories.

One of the packages in NBC News’ new search function on the app is called “Decision 2022,” with interactive features like NBC News’ “Plan Your Vote” tool, which provides state-by-state voting rules and information. A new menu at the top of the app now links out to a live blog on the midterm elections. An NBC News spokesperson said two-thirds of its mobile app users return to the app multiple times a day.

The Washington Post: More live, visual information

The Washington Post has been rolling out updates to its app since this summer to prepare for the midterm elections. The goal is to create an experience “that feels dynamic, live and personal” by providing faster updates and more visual integrations on the app, said The Post’s head of product Jessica Gilbert.

“Quick Posts” — or short, on-the-ground reporting or analysis from The Post’s journalists — were redesigned in early October to feature a journalist’s photo and bio in the app. The app was also upgraded last week to support more images, social posts and graphics like maps. The “Quick Posts” feed into the live blog experience on The Post’s app, which lets journalists quickly share continuous updates on big news stories, Gilbert said. Users who engage with the live blog experience read twice as many articles per month than those who do not, according to The Post.

Vertical video will also be a key part of midterms coverage for The Post and will be shared on the app. The app will contain Instagram Reels and TikToks created by Post reporters and its social team, as well as original videos ranging from interviews with candidates, election explainers and key takeaways. Support for vertical video — and auto-play functionality — were added to the app this year. The Post’s app will also host live video programming starting at 7 p.m. on Election Day, led by senior news anchor Libby Casey.

A test run for 2024 

All of the media executives Digiday spoke with for this story said these latest app updates are a test to see what resonates with users in preparation for the U.S. presidential election in 2024.

“The way we’re thinking about it is: how do we test our hypotheses about what voters need for the next election? This is in many ways a little bit of our test run on some key hypotheses we have that we think are going to be super vital in the presidential [elections] coming up,” SmartNews’ Lee said.

Gilbert at The Washington Post called the latest app updates a “runway” for experimenting with new features and building upon them for the next election.

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