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Designing at the speed of news

— For Iowa's big night, I was the designer in charge of helping our two cover editors make the best cover-grids they could make and troubleshoot technical issues they might encounter. Turns out that I barely earned my free pizza that night because no matter what surprise political win or early candidate speech was thrown at the editors' wire-feeds and TV screens, they were ready for it!

One editor focusing on the current cover and one anticipating the next move worked like a charm! Aside from a couple minor tweaks, I was just there to admire what I thought was impossible to achieve less than a year ago: editors making light-speed changes, big and small, to a visually complicated cover without the intervention of a designer.

The media editor was able to constantly switch to better photos  as they became available. It was amazing to watch everyone in the newsroom pulling together to beat the competition and deliver up-to-the-minute coverage, and I think we did just that. In terms of layouts, there was a bit of planning, too, and it was really helpful to have pre-made layouts to choose from in different situations. Looking back, I wish we had changed the overall layout a little more often throughout the evening. But for a first time dealing with constantly breaking live coverage for a whole evening, we can't be too picky. There's always a next time.

We have a new tool that takes screenshots of our cover every time it's changed and, as I was reviewing all of the different versions of that night, I was pretty surprised at how alive it really was the whole time. One of our media editors (Thanks, Meredith!) made a small animation with all of them for us to get an idea of what kind of work goes into the cover. Wow! Photos are changing left and right, getting better and better, headlines are being tweaked, deck shortened, mistakes fixed...mistakes? What mistakes? All of that so that when you come to our site, you see the best we can possibly offer at that minute. Take a look at it and see all of the changes that occurred in the span of a few hours and think that when you came to our site, you only saw one or two snapshots of those and probably took it all for granted.

So until this year, what we had at MSNBC and other news sites was the freedom to change our lead story five, even 10 times a day. For all-evening events, such as caucus nights, we could switch the lead a couple times but we really had to focus on the big story. We were not able to put the light on interesting moments of the evening because it just wasn't technically possible to do it well and barely worth doing it anyway for only 10 minutes.

Times have changed. And that night, as we looked at our competition working in an almost static past, our coverage was alive, always new and updated. Like the others, we always had our lead story in a prominent spot, but we had much more to offer: live coverage as it unfolded, with live video, live photos, live updates, live live live!

Is this what you want to see from us in the coverage of an event, such as the Iowa caucus? What are your thoughts after watching the animation? Is all this worth it to you?