NEWS SITES GET FLASH-Y

By: Martha L. Stone

Macromedia Products Become Popular Illustrators





Flash has the potential to fulfill the promise of online interactivity, according to art directors at newspapers and Web news sites. But for now, the news industry is taking baby steps to achieve an appropriate balance between being “cool” and serious news storytelling.



“Flash is still in a very experimental phase,” said Don Wittekind, art director for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. “Artists are taking existing (print) graphics and animating them in Flash.”



Among the most impressive Macromedia Flash graphics practitioners in the news business are the Sun-Sentinel, MSNBC.com, CNN.com, El Mundo of Spain, Baltimore’s SunSpot.net, the Associated Press’s The Wire, Minneapolis’ StarTribune.com, and KnightRidder.com.


The artists are creating a variety of impressive interactive graphics about space, politics, science, weather, sports, and even breaking news. The graphics can be simply animated, and can also include sound and video. (Examples at end of story.)



“You can control the kind of information they are getting,” said Tom Zeller, graphics editor for The New York Times’ Weekend Review section. “You can guide them to the information. It’s not passive like TV graphics.”



Wittekind thinks there would be more Flash if print artists weren’t afraid of it. It’s not too difficult to learn, he suggests. “Every version makes it easier, adding more features, simplifying it a little more,” he said.



Tonia Cowan, art director for the AP’s Web site, agrees. “Flash 5 will be easier to learn and use,” Cowan said. “We’re told there’s better sound with Flash 5 … it’s still a little complicated.”



But Cowan said Flash isn’t any more complicated than Freehand or Illustrator, which have been the programs of choice for graphics artists at newspapers and magazines for years. That said, creating the Flash graphics takes a different mindset than creating “flat” Adobe Illustrator or Macromedia Freehand graphics for the newspaper. The graphics have to be planned with interactivity in mind.



At its best, Flash graphics have the potential to take viewers to new places. For example, the Olympics site produced by the Sydney Morning Herald, at www.smh.com.au/olympics, provides Flash tours of Sydney and Melbourne. Intel’s 1000 years of the Olympic games provides a Flash retrospective on the games from the times of ancient Greece. SMH.com partnered with CitySearch to provide the virtual tours, and with Intel to provide the historical graphics.



Because of Flash’s recent acceptance into the online news world, the parameters for its use have yet to be set. “It’s tempting to do everything every time, but once you get past that point, you just use it to tell a story,” Cowan said. “It will be the standard for a story that warrants a graphic.”



Zeller said that discussions about how best to use the tool in the context of journalism have taken place at the Times. “Everybody is trying to use Flash, but nobody knows how it best be used,” he said.


At the Times, if a complicated package of text, photos, video and audio is planned, Flash may be used to animate or enhance existing Illustrator graphics. But for the future, Zeller thinks Flash graphics will be conceived of and executed as Flash projects from beginning to end. “It’s more powerful to build a Flash graphic from the ground up, not jerry-made from a print story,” he said.



Flash graphics can be viewed across Macintosh, Windows and other Web platforms using Flash Player, available on an estimated 90% of browsers in use today.



Many print and online news art departments are combined, so artists must convert flat Adobe Illustrator or Macromedia Freehand files to Flash to be read on the Web. For the Sun-Sentinel, which has separate art departments, the print artists are experimenting with Flash, and have been successful creating graphics with longevity on the site.



They created a high-tech Santa Claus two years ago, when it got only 300 page views during the first holiday season. Last year, it got 250,000 page views – enough to rank No. 5 of the most trafficked pages on the site.



Wittekind believes it’s the interactive graphics that help drive traffic to the news site, like their hurricane builder and their interactive roach – both simulators that allow users to plug in variables that affect their experiences. For example, there are three variables that users plug in to the hurricane builder formula to create hurricane conditions, which takes trial and error on the user’s part. Eventually, the user will build a hurricane online.



Now that Cowan’s three artists who are proficient in Flash are up to speed, she is moving the focus of the department from long-range packages to deadline graphics. Some examples of deadline graphics would be those explaining how an accident happened, or simplifying a complicated news story.



“We went to science first because there is a lot of ‘wow’ to it, and there’s usually a lot of lead time,” Cowan said. “It’s the next logical step to bring this into a daily deadline-oriented environment.”





Martha L. Stone (martstone@aol.com) is new-media author and teacher based in North Barrington, Ill. She writes frequently for E&P Online.



Flash in action



Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

Minneapolis Star Tribune

AP hurricane package

AP genetic engineering

MSNBC.com Chandra package

MSNBC.com Hubble

MSNBC.com Mars Lander

MSNBC.com Space Gallery

El Mundo (in Spanish….but fantastic!)

CNN.com

Baltimore Sun (SunSpot)

The

New York Times on the Web





Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher.

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