How online graphics succeed, or fail: 5 factors

How many people look at an animated infographic on a news Web site?

“I would say 10,000 is a good number for us,” said Keith Claxton, an infographics journalist at the Chicago Tribune.

That would be a great number of pageviews for, say, a post on my little blog. But for a news site on the scale of the Chicago Tribune’s, it’s pitiful. And for graphics of the caliber produced by Claxton — doubly pitiful. Check out his 2008 Democratic delegate race, for example. It deserves much more than 10,000 views. That number is “really small in comparison to the overall Web site,” Claxton said.

Claxton was speaking to a group of journalism professors in the Visual Communication division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (details here), along with his colleague Chuck Burke, assistant graphics editor. They talked about the workflow in their newsroom, their relationships with reporters and editors, and choices they make regarding when, how, and why to create an online graphic. They also discussed the necessary differences between the design of graphics created for print and those created for online.

For perspective, consider that in January 2007, an animated infographic at The Dallas Morning News garnered 42,000 hits in the first 24 hours — while the online text story on the same topic got a bit more than 20,000.

Newsroom managers, take note: Information graphics can be fantastic click magnets. But not if they are handled badly.

Perhaps you need to reconsider your strategy for online graphics.

1. How long does it take to complete the graphic?

Graphic journalists such as Claxton are already looking at time spent as a determining factor in whether they will create an online graphic. Someone new to using Flash might take weeks to create an interactive graphic because she is learning new skills at the same time. Later on, however, the skills learned will enable that person to create a similar graphic much more quickly.

Miami Herald multimedia projects producer Stephanie Rosenblatt said she spent five or six days to produce this Florida Democratic primaries map “because I was learning AS3 [ActionScript 3] while trying to do it” — but that kind of time investment is the exception, not the rule, for online news graphics.

“One of the great things about AS3 is, if you create classes and functions that are not information-specific, you can reuse them. That’s really important; all real programmers handle things that way,” she wrote in a live chat interview on Aug. 13.

This Miami transit projects graphic took a day and a half, including time needed to redraw the map. It’s not a great graphic, Rosenblatt admitted, “but it gets the job done.”

Claxton and Burke referred to various interactive graphics that were completed in two days or less. Tools used: Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Flash, Microsoft Excel. Those three software packages account for “almost everything I do,” Claxton said.

About a dozen people work in news graphics at the Tribune; the graphics desk is separate from page design and also from photo.

As an online news graphics journalist becomes more adept with Flash, more and more of the code and scripting elements can be re-used in future graphics. A calculator (such as the Gas Gouge-o-Meter) can be turned around very quickly — in about one hour, Claxton said.

Online breaking news graphics (which are usually maps, Burke noted) can be turned around in a couple of hours or less by an experienced graphic artist.

Newsroom managers: Your news graphics people will become very good at estimating how much time a particular online graphic will require (if they aren’t already). If they are new at using Flash, expect things to take longer than they will later, when the producer has sufficient experience. Don’t assume that these online interactives “take too much time” to produce. That is not true for experienced graphics producers.

2. How is the graphic promoted or made visible on the site?

This is a huge issue at a lot of news sites! When a graphic appears on the home page — either as a fully functioning SWF embedded in the page, or as a static image that links to the live infographic on its own page — the number of pageviews or clicks into the graphic shoot waaay up. But home pages are reworked throughout the day at most news sites, and the graphic usually will not stay there for more than a few hours, at most. As soon as it disappears from the front, the graphic becomes invisible, and pageviews/clicks fall sharply.

Claxton pointed out that a lot of graphics he’s creating now have small standard dimensions, allowing them to be embedded easily within article pages on the site. He showed a compact version of the Gas Gouge-O-Meter to illustrate this. However, today I did a search on the Tribune site for stories about gas prices, and not one of the six staff-written stories I opened had the gas calculator embedded — or even linked to the story!

Newsroom managers: That is a big missed opportunity. You’ve got a great, useful interactive graphic that can be used over and over again — but your workflow systems don’t enable the optimization of your assets.

While many news sites have special landing pages, or indexes, for “multimedia” (photos and video), few have an index for graphics, charts, and interactive features. (Example: The Tribune’s “Video/Photos” index page.) How hard is it to figure out that once the graphic goes out of sight, no one will view it anymore?

3. Are your news graphics optimized for search, so that people will discover them?

Even if the graphic is not on the home page, it could still bring in a lot of traffic — if Google could see it.

“We’re under the hood in Google SEO [search engine optimization] now,” Burke said, adding that about half the pageviews for most individual items on the site come in from links and Google searches, while the other half come from the Tribune home page. Recognizing that external links (from bloggers and others) and Google search results account for as much as half or all pageviews is a key to understanding how to attract more traffic to your site.

If I entered gas price calculator into Google, wouldn’t it be great for the Tribune if their Gas Gouge-O-Meter came up in the first three or four search results?

Sadly, it doesn’t even come up if I type gas price calculator

Burke noted that the search engine on the Tribune site could be better. I have to agree — I spent almost an hour searching for one of the graphics Claxton showed us, using both the Tribune search and Google, and I was never able to find it.

Referring to one of the graphics Claxton had shown us, Burke said, “It took Keith and me at least 10 minutes to find it — and we knew where to look!”

Newsroom managers: Ask your online producers what specific steps they have taken to ensure that news graphics appear in Google searches. Then double-check with the graphics producers. Listen to them if they tell you their stuff is not coming up. Then make fixing the problem a top priority. You’re throwing money out the window if you don’t leverage the traffic these graphics could be bringing in.

4. How long are news graphics kept on the live servers?

This is another huge problem at many sites. Burke said the life span of online news graphics is “frustratingly short.”

The Tribune’s content management system will automatically purge items, based on a parameter set when the item was posted to the site. Claxton said the time allotment options for an item are something like three weeks, six months, one year.

It makes sense to purge a graphic about the U.S. election primaries after, say, November 2008. But a lot of information graphics have an unlimited value-life online. Think of the gas price calculator, for example. Even as gas prices fall, people might still want to estimate their car-travel expenses.

There’s also a connection to SEO; imagine someone searching for California fires in the summer of 2008. If your fire graphic from summer 2007 is still online, it could have strong “Google juice” a year later. Add a re-direct to last year’s graphic and send the searchers to your new, up-to-date 2008 graphic on another page. Sweet.

Newsroom managers: You might be wasting opportunities for traffic growth if you do not keep information graphics online, at a permanent URL. Hard disk space is cheap, and always getting cheaper. It’s wrongheaded to save mere kilobytes (peanuts) while tossing away search-driven pageviews (elephants).

5. Is communication between graphics and everyone else frequent enough — and early enough — in the news cycle?

Claxton and Burke emphasized that the graphics reporters must be proactive and involve themselves in newsroom meetings and decision-making.

“If we sat and waited for them to come to us, we would be marginalized,” Claxton said. “They would only come to us with simple requests and simple ideas.”

Some reporters know from experience that the graphics desk can enhance their work and make their stories even better; those reporters will come and ask the graphics folks if they can see some potential in an upcoming story. For the most part, though, it’s the graphics department’s ability to anticipate the news that gets the job done, Burke said.

Those who create the illustrations often work with graphics reporters who research the story and write text for the graphics. Anywhere from one to five people might be involved in producing one online graphic, Claxton said.

Usually the print and online graphics are “tied to some kind of narrative reporting that’s going on. We do those independently, almost as stand-alone pieces, but at the same time, there’s a lot of collaboration,” he said.

Newsroom managers: Your graphics people can tell you whether a story lends itself to graphics, and how long it will take to produce those graphics — but they have to be aware of the reporting (and involved in it!) at the very beginning of the process. Too often, the graphics desk is shut out by reporters and editors who want to keep their stories to themselves — a practice which is more likely to hurt the story than help it.

Examples shown by Keith Claxton, Chicago Tribune:

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5 Comments on “How online graphics succeed, or fail: 5 factors

  1. Pingback: » Online-Infografiken optimal einsetzen

  2. Isn’t it more likely that the issue seems to be the “Package Mentality.”

    In other words, that any graphic worth publishing has to be a super-slick Flash project? Sometimes an annotated Google map mashup or a Swivel graphic running with an item can be just as useful and require a lot fewer specialized resources.

    Brace yoursef – paradigm shift warning:
    These types of Web graphics can be produced and initiated by reporters with no special graphics or programming expertise.

    No software to buy too and you can embed them directly into the content instead of publishing them in a multimedia ghetto. How many newsapers make that mistake?

    News managers, take note, your SEO is a lot higher than it will be for a Flash graphic. Not that packages are bad – but they should only be ordered for really special stories.

    When I see how the right-minded UK newspapers are now producing more video components – rather than traditional TV News style self-contained packages, I see how smart media companies are learning that it is much less about slick packaging and much more about immediate, contextual relevancy.
    Place your bets on ease of use and user experience first and you will win.

    Increasing the graphics literacy in your newsroom by teaching more reporters how to generate quick, effective Web-based graphics (like Google maps, swivel graphics and other simple browser-based graphics tools) will have more of an impact in all areas you explore here.

    That’s the stuff I am teaching reporters today in a seminar at Medill – because those are the skills and strategies that will be required of reporters and online news outlets.

  3. @Robb – Make that: Packages should be ordered only for really special stories that have long shelf life.

    What do you mean by “swivel graphic”? (A panorama?)

  4. Pingback: Teaching Online Journalism » The role of Flash in a news organization (Part 2)

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