The role of Flash in a news organization (Part 1)

Inspired by Mark Luckie’s useful post about where to find the best in Flash journalism, coupled with the recent release of Flash CS4, I thought I might make a stab at discussing strategies for using Flash.

On Friday, one of our IT guys installed Flash CS4 on my Windows box at work. Whoa. Radically different! Adobe moved the TImeline and the Toolbox, and they changed the panel layouts. It’s like visiting a foreign country where they don’t use the Latin alphabet. Where’s this? Where’s that? Then I grabbed the paintbrush, chose a color, modified the brush, and painted a circle. Ah, same as it ever was. Converted the circle to a symbol. No problem. Tweened it — whoa! Tweening has changed!

For a brief overview of how Flash CS4 differs from all previous versions, see the Macworld review.

ActionScript 3 is still in force, and ActionScript 2 is still available as an option. So it’s not as radical as it might seem at first. A lot of the changes have to do with animation techniques.

In news organizations, Flash is frequently used to create an interface for a news package, or for a player (e.g., a video player). You don’t have to build a video player from scratch — you can use the excellent JW FLV Media Player. And there’s no need to build a slideshow player — you can use Soundslides (which was developed by a photojournalist, Joe Weiss).

Here are some examples of Flash interfaces for journalism packages:

Typically this kind of package bundles together (or integrates) several discrete elements such as videos, audio, maps, and animated graphics. The audience remains oriented by the consistent, persistent interface (buttons and other cues remain fixed and stable). Credits and background information are easy to find within the package itself. This kind of package differs from a mere player in that all its elements are part of the same story.

Another great use for Flash is to display interactive data visualizations, at which The New York Times excels:

Similarly, Flash is great for animated and interactive graphics of all kinds:

Or you can use Flash to make a simple infographic with rollover effects, like Web of Influence (New York Times), which shows affiliations of Chicago’s Gov. Rod Blagojevich. This is Flash 101 — the functionality here is as basic as can be.

Hm, this post is already a bit lengthy, and I didn’t get to the actual strategy part yet. I’ll do that tomorrow.

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14 Comments on “The role of Flash in a news organization (Part 1)

  1. I’ve been working on the pre-release flash CS4 for a while and I remember when I first ran it. I couldn’t figure out a single tween for a while until I saw a video from them on how to tween. Once you get used to it, it makes sense, but the first time you come from CS3 it freaks you out. Good ole Adobe reinvented the wheel. Ugh. I have to teach it next semester already.

  2. Why would an industry that can’t figure out how to make money online spend money on prestige projects — which is 90% of the flash content out there?

    I love flash, but… there’s a reason the best flash out there is on websites that are basically ads. It’s expensive, tricky, SEO-unfriendly, not-portable, and doesn’t necessarily encourage regular consumption.

  3. Excellent comment, Christopher! Thanks! You’re right that big, time-consuming “prestige projects” don’t make sense for a news org with limited resources. But not all Flash products are big, and sometimes, where recurring data updates are involved, a Flash implementation could actually be cost-effective.

  4. Sort of piggy-backing on Christopher’s comment, I am curious how many of the snazzy infographics produced by NYT, WaPo and others are actually viewed by “average” viewers, i.e., not visual geeks. That’s part of the ROI question related to interactive graphics.

    And I am so tired of Adobe updating every 18 months. Makes it difficult to keep a text. Flash Journalism 1.0 is way out of date, and I’m looking forward to the new one.

  5. excellent post, again, mindy. the cost-benefit analysis of time spent on a flash project vs. time spent building the damn thing is something our newsroom continues to wrestle with. my criteria for projects are: lots of utility, lots of shelf-life and lots of visual elements. utility earns page hits, shelf-life means resuability and visual elements play up the strengths of flash. by the way, thanks for the shout-out on the supercomputer thing.

  6. I’m mulling over a Journalistopia post about how news orgs use Flash, actually. I think we’ve all got a lot of rethinking to do when it comes to how we approach Flash. Looking forward to part 2.

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  8. I think NYtimes is taking advantage of flex to create multimedia features. It is programmer oriented, much easier to make news templates for reuse, much easier to update. Flash, basically is a animation tool. Flex would be better for making multimedia news packages.

  9. I think the ROI question is a good one, as is the steepness of the learning curve for the Flash interface (how many palettes do I need, anyway?). Thing is, that’s not the only Adobe product that compiles .swf files. I’ve been playing around with Flex for a few months and, from a non-designer’s viewpoint, I find it much easier to use, especially for building interfaces to data-driven products. It’s not perfect. That ease of use comes from a framework that can add to the size of files. And you’re probably not going to use it for feature-type animations. But, I highly recommend giving the three-month trial a whirl.

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  11. Just started looking through your Flash tutorials and it doesn’t seem as intimidating now. Thank you for that!

    I only have the CS3 version so CS4 will be a whole ‘nother ball of wax for me. But the cost-effective issue has crossed my mind as well … perhaps it is best when there’s a lot of numbers and graphics are the easiest way to explain it? If the story is relevant, the flash would have a long shelf life, no?

  12. @Allison – Yes, shelf life is a big consideration. If you can easily update the numbers in the graphic (e.g., via a database or an automated feed), or if it is something that will remain interesting even with no updating (e.g., an animated tour of Stonehenge), then you can justify the expenditure of time.

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