Visualizing survey results

Surveys often lead to fascinating stories, but the data behind them can be hard to convey in an interesting way. The recent Pew Forum report on religion in American life is a classic example. pew-religion1

The survey found that more than half of Americans say religion is very important in their daily lives, attend religious services regularly and pray every day, but that a majority of Americans are not dogmatic about their beliefs. The report included a chart (left) showing how people of different faiths interpret their religion’s teachings.  Useful information but dull as dishwater.

USA Today took the same information and made it both attractive and interactive online.


Not only can you compare responses from different faith groups, you can sort the results to make the comparisons even  clearer at a glance. Every major question in the survey has been illustrated this way, giving users the opportunity to explore the answers that interest them most. Nice work!


Mapping the recession

nyt-recession-map2Maps can show the scope of a story in a way that words and pictures alone cannot. The New York Times has produced a simple map that shows the impact of unemployment across the country, county-by-county. Roll-over boxes show how the unemployment rate has changed from a year ago.

As the caption notes and the map makes clear, “Job losses have been most severe in the areas that experienced a big boom in housing, those that depend on manufacturing and those that already had the highest unemployment rates.”

usa-loans-mapUSA Today combines a map of home loans with a timeline “scrubber” that lets users compare data from 2000 and 2007. It’s a dramatic illustration of the huge increase over that time period in mortgages that were four times greater than the applicant’s annual income.

CNN has a series of maps that make the state-by-state impact of the recession easy to grasp at a glance, showing unemployment, state budget deficits and foreclosures.

cnn-economy-trackerEmbedded in the maps are personal stories, like that of Fai Nomaaea [left], who lost her rented home when the owner defaulted on the mortgage. Additional maps show the estimated effect of the federal stimulus bill on jobs in each state. It’s a great example of a “sticky” site giving users a lot to explore.

Please let us know if you’ve produced or seen other recession-related maps so we can share more good examples.

Producing interactive news games

peacemakerEngaging the news audience in complex issues is a challenge for every news organization, and that’s the idea behind a site called “Play the News.” One of their newest games is called “Peacemaker,” a game that focuses on helping people understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Unfortunately, many newsrooms fear they lack the time and the expertise to create interactive games.

Eric Brown runs the company that owns “Play the News;” he recently offered some suggestions on Poynter for anyone thinking about producing interactive news games.   Brown says the goal is to create a game template that can be used over and over.

We built out the framework for interactivity with the goal of trying to create these things on a daily basis. That’s the key to making news games –- something that can be turned around on deadline.

Once you have that template, Brown suggests you approach the task of building a game by asking a series of questions:

  1. What is the underlying issue that you want to explain?
  2. Who are the groups and leaders who are involved?
  3. What are the roles, moving forward?
  4. What types of actions could they possibly take?

From what he says, it sounds like Brown is hoping to turn the platform his company has developed into the kind of “plug and play” template newsrooms could use.

We’d also be interested in hearing about any other initatives aimed at making interactive news games easier to produce.   So what else is out there?

Reboot local news

Many local TV Web sites leave a lot to be desired. They’re better than they used to be, thank goodness, but they still have a long way to go.  Too many sites remain hard to navigate, crammed with news, ads, promos, videos and all kinds of random content that leaves the user feeling overwhelmed and underinformed.

Rick Garner, program manager at AOL’s Weblogs Inc., spent more than 10 years in local TV. In his latest blog entry, he offers ten tips for stations searching for relevance online.  Among them:

#6 Don’t try to be all things to all people. Focus on something that’s not being done and do it better than anyone else. If someone else comes along and does something better than you adapt or do something new. Adapting on the web is easy and costs virtually nothing.

Garner says stations should seriously consider taking national news off their sites. “Posting AP copy on your site isn’t covering national news, it’s being a portal for them.”  As for local news, he says, it needs to be rebooted.  Stations must stop thinking of the Web as just another platform for the same material they’ve already put on the air.

Local TV websites need to take full advantage of posting the hours of video they capture and stream them on a site with a reliable video platform or video embeds. Often, the formats and platforms chosen to host these tools have been poor performers and resource hogs to users’ computers.

TV reporters also need to learn to write differently for the Web, Garner says.  We agree, of course–and you can learn how from the book.

No simple job

The digital development director at WUSA-TV in Washington, DC, doesn’t just manage the station’s Web site. Patrick O’Brien is also in charge of five local microsites focused on everything from young moms to entertainment to high school sports.  So what does he really do?

Here’s one specific way that O’Brien uses Twitter: as a kind of community-powered scanner. makes it easy to track Tweets from or about one specific city. O’Brien has found news tips on the DC page before they ever hit the old fashioned police and fire scanners.

O’Brien has also used his Twitter feed to look for new hires.  “I’m following several intern organizations,” he says. He’s posted jobs on Twitter and  interviewed some of his Twitter followers.

With WUSA’s recent conversion to an all-VJ newsroom, O’Brien is helping to train the staff to use new media tools like Twitter. Two of his other favorites: DrPic, a free online app for cropping and compressing photos, and YouSendIt, which makes it easy to transfer large files.

So that’s what a digital development director does.

Are news Web sites all the same?

When it comes to page views, is doing more than OK.  According to an article in the International Herald Tribune, “Nielsen ranked as the No.1 current events and global news Web site last year, with a monthly average of 1.7 billion – half a billion views more than its nearest competitor, ”

But the new boss at, K.C. Estenson, says he’s still worried. 

At the end of a long day recently, he showed a visitor screen grabs from four Web pages. “When you look at the top news sites, they often look almost identical,” he said, gesturing to the home pages of CNN, ABC News, The Wall Street Journal and Yahoo News. Down to photo choices and color schemes, the four sites look almost interchangeable and utilitarian, he says – hence his emphasis on the power of unique signatures.

That seemed like a terrific idea.  So, here are screen grabs from those four sites, taken within just a couple minutes of each other. Click on each to take a look at how similar they are in design and, to some extent, content. Now, the question is – have all these sites found the optimal design and definition of what’s news? Or as Estenson suggests are most news Web sites simply “predictable and homogenous.”

And take a look at the news sites in your own market. How distinctive are they? And what would it take to give them “the unique signature” that Estenson thinks a site needs to achieve success in the future?

Five video story forms

If you’re new to working with video, especially online, it’s important to think about the kind of story you’re trying to tell before gathering the visuals you’ll use to tell it.  Our recent post on how Web video is different shared how the Washington Post categorizes Web videos into three “tiers.”  At the Arizona Republic, deputy managing editor Michael Roberts talks about five “story forms” for video.

  • Event: One time, ongoing or recurring.
  • Guide: Tour or how-to.
  • Profile: Person, place or organization.
  • Slice of life: Sights and sounds, often familiar.
  • Man on the street:  Quotes and views of people.

Roberts suggests that you first decide what form you’re using, then collect information about the story and plan the shoot to gather video and audio.  Before you put the pieces together, decide on a structure.  Are you telling the story in chronological order?  Are you grouping information by topic?  Either can work, but in every case your video needs a clear beginning, middle and end.

This may all seem obvious to experienced photojournalists, and it leaves out a lot of other video story forms.  But it’s a useful road map for anyone who’s new to visual storytelling and who’s expected to produce Web videos quickly.

By the way, we’re now working with some folks on developing additional ways of thinking about Web video, so stay tuned.

TV news tops, but Web a close second

The Pew Research Center’s annual look at where people get their news shows TV still dominates, but online news consumption continues to grow.  In fact, newspapers are no longer the second most common source of news for Americans, they’ve dropped into third place.

According to Media Post Publications, TV claimed “70% share in 2008–but that’s down from 74% in 2007, and a peak of 82% in 2002.”  A closer look at the demographics raises a concern for TV newsrooms, too – for adults 30 and under, TV and the Internet are now tied as primary news sources.  And here’s something else for TV stations to worry about:

Although print newspapers–especially big metro dailies–appear to be locked in an irreversible long-term decline, newspaper Web sites have had big increases in audiences. In October 2008–the last month for which data is available–newspaper Web sites attracted a total of 68.97 million unique visitors–up 64% from 41.96 million in October 2004.

So why aren’t we seeing similar results for TV news sites?  Could it be that TV stations continue to minimize the importance of the Web in their newsrooms?  To be fair, it may be that the big metro newspapers, despite layoffs, still have larger editorial staffs than their TV counterparts, so they have the content available to create more robust Web sites.  But TV stations need to figure out how to capitalize on the Web, and they need to do it fast.

Editors still needed

Finally, some good news for journalists.  It turns out they can’t be entirely replaced by computers.   Not for lack of trying, you understand.  But Gabe Rivera, the brains behind the technology news aggregator, now admits,  “Automated news doesn’t quite work.”

Instead of relying exclusively on algorithms to decide the mix of headlines on the site as it has since its launch in 2005, Techmeme now employs one human editor, Megan McCarthy.  Rivera says the algorithms still do most of the work but he expects McCarthy will have a pronounced impact.

The news will just get faster and more interesting. Obsolete stories will be eliminated sooner while breaking stories will be expedited. Related grouping will improve.

Rivera says the experience of introducing direct editing has been “a revelation.”

Interacting directly with an automated news engine makes it clear that the human+algorithm combo can curate news far more effectively that the individual human or algorithmic parts. It really feels like the age of the news cyborg has arrived. Our goal is to apply this new capability to producing the clearest and most useful tech news overview available.

So what’s McCarthy’s job title?  Not yet determined, but Rivera is leaning toward “news maestro,” because of her role in “conducting the symphony of voices that flow through Techmeme each day.”

News mixed with Facebook

newsmixerIt’s being called a “game changer” for commenting on the news.  Graduate students at Northwestern’s Medill j-school have developed a Web site that marries news content with a Facebook app to let users have their say about news stories.

News Mixer takes content from the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette and allows users to log in via Facebook Connect and comment in three different ways: by asking a question about the story, posting a “quip” in a sidebar, or writing a letter to the editor.

The project was funded by the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge and it’s the brainchild of Medill professor Rich Gordon, who says his goal was to improve online discussions of the news.

Nobody has been particularly happy with the remarks appearing in comment boxes or thinks they further public discourse. By creating a site with richer opportunities for interactive comments, we hope to improve the quality of online discussion that takes place around local news content.

According to Northwestern, a New York Times editor, Aron Pilhofer, believes News Mixer has a lot of promise for the media industry and says there are “bits and pieces of it I’d like to steal right now.”

As it happens, anyone can “steal” the idea because the software is open-source and available now on the students’ Crunchberry Project blog.