5 things you can do to improve news graphics now

Is it really such a bad thing to take a flat print graphic straight out of the newspaper and stick it on your Web site? Meranda Watling thinks so. She rips Ohio.com — the Web site of the Akron Beacon Journal — for doing just that with a long, skinny, extremely text-heavy graphic.

I have discussed this practice with very savvy Flash designers at major news Web sites. The gist of their answer: You cannot adapt or animate every single graphic the newspaper publishes.

Fair enough. There are practical constraints related to time and manpower.

But when I look at the graphic from the Journal, I see a missed opportunity. The information is both highly local and of immediate interest (the Akron area is experiencing record cold temperatures). On top of that, some of the information can be re-used again and again, so once you built the package and tagged it appropriately, you could haul it out again in March (if the bitter cold strikes again) and even next year and the next.

It would get a lot of pageviews off the Web front if you played it right. People always care about the weather. The executive editor of The Washington Post is known in his newsroom for loving weather stories — you’ve got to run a big snow photo on Page One if there was snow yesterday in D.C. You might laugh at this, but think about one of our culture’s oldest adages: It’s always safe (and polite) to talk about the weather.

Information graphics represent a key area where news organizations need to get smarter to help themselves improve online.

Here are five things to consider right now:

  1. How many Flash designers do you have? How many artists on the news graphics desk? I’m willing to bet there are more of the latter. So why aren’t they working in Flash already? Why haven’t you trained them? One part of the solution is to stop replicating labor. Don’t make the Flash person re-create the work already done at the graphics desk. Re-train your news artists now!
  2. Are your graphics unique and relevant to your audience? Florida Today has good reasons to create space graphics: NASA is in their backyard. What’s your excuse? Make your graphics distinctly relevant to your audience. Why? It adds value. Your goal is to serve that audience — so do things that really matter to them.
  3. Is your news graphics desk involved in all the editorial discussions — and is the involvement early enough? These folks can help you if you invite them in. They can tell you what assets must be gathered to create a great graphic online. They know stuff that you will never think of — so bring them in early, on every local story that’s bigger than a crime blotter item.
  4. Keep the graphics online, at the same URL. A link to a great graphic should never do this. If you’ve invested the time and the manpower, why shouldn’t you reap the full benefits from that graphic over time? Graphics attract pageviews (IF people can FIND them). The Web does not end up in the bottom of the birdcage tomorrow! It’s time to recognize that.
  5. Akin to No. 4: Tag and index all of your graphics. You want to be able to find them again when they become relevant again, yes? You also want them to be easily findable when users SEARCH for them. The most illogical thing in the world is to spend two days creating something and then fail to take two minutes to add tags, keywords and indexing aids to it.

It’s time to get smart about news graphics. Find out what your staff and colleagues have done lately — and make a plan today to do it better!

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9 Comments on “5 things you can do to improve news graphics now

  1. I do understand that not every graphic can be or need be adapted for Web. But that particular graphic seemed to be an especially good example of what you shouldn’t do. It didn’t need to be Flash, but it should have been thought out.

    Personally, the story itself was your standard weather story. It’s Ohio. It’s cold. Big deal. I was far more interested in the information in the graphic. But how many people actually take the time to open the story and then click again to open the graphic? There wasn’t even a preview to tell me what I would find.

    And the page refers in the graphic do nothing for me. If I want to know more, I have to go search for those items on my own because they provided no links. Doesn’t the saying go, “Don’t make me think”?

  2. A humble suggestion for a sixth? Print graphics often are built around the idea of highlighting the X number of examples we can fit into a graphic of Y size.

    With the web, that limitation goes away. Web graphics should be born of the idea that we can give readers all the data, and they can pick what they want to highlight. It’s much easier to go from an interactive graphic that gives a reader everything to a traditional static graphic that highlights a few things than the other way around.

    And, to your point, an interactive map I did of home prices by neighborhood got more page views than the story I did on the day the two pieces ran, and the map is *still* getting traffic now two months after it ran. Story? Long forgotten.

  3. Meranda, I agree with you 100 percent. The page refers are ridiculous online.

    Matt, that is a fantastic example! I want the link!

  4. Matt: So the map refers only to the price change from 2nd quarter 2006 to 3rd quarter 2006? Are those the most recent figures available? Is this graphic dynamic? Can you update it every quarter.

    I LOVE the idea of this map!

  5. At the time, they were the most recent available. This is analysis that I do myself, using GIS to aggregate individual sales records into neighborhoods across the Tampa Bay region. So, is it dynamic? Sadly, no. It’s using a product called HTML Imagemapper, which is an extension to the GIS software I use (ArcGIS). It turns a map into a series of tiled jpegs and imagemaps those jpegs, linking to static HTML files that come from the database. Could I update it every quarter? Sure, but if that were the plan, some other means of getting it online would be a wiser move. HTML Imagemapper works great for one off, simple things. But the time spent putting together the data, and the maps, and the presentation online, it all starts to add up. If you were to do this regularly, it would be worth the investment to get the tools to do it dynamically.

  6. Mindy — great post. I also was venting frustrations about this the other day after experimenting with interactive graphics on my paper’s site (heraldtribune.com).

    Amazingly, a couple hours of work turning a 2D graphic into an interactive map generated a lot of page views. It was easy to do, but definitely a duplication of effort. Having the print graphics department produce these would be the best solution.

    But the small graphics department is already swamped keeping up with the print demands. So anything they do for the Web has to be second priority, and only if they have time (which they never do). I don’t think our situation is unique.

    Matt’s suggestion of publishing for the Web first makes perfect sense and this is an obvious area for newspapers to start with reverse publishing.

  7. Great comment, Melissa — I’m going to read your post now.

  8. Pingback: Teaching Online Journalism » Top Tojou blog posts of 2007

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