News Sites Need To Get Flash-y

By: Steve Outing

I often preach the need for interactivity in online content, and in crafting content that fits the Internet medium. That often means presenting stories in multimedia formats, using whatever’s appropriate to a story, including sound, animation, video, etc.

The Society for News Design seems to be thinking that way, too. The print-dominated organization (which used to be called the Society for Newspaper Design) recently launched a new awards competition, called the SND.ies, “the best of new media design.”

The awards are being judged monthly, and the competition is being administered on SND’s behalf by Laura Ruel, executive director of the Estlow Center for Journalism and New Media at the University of Denver.

This is great news, because interactive, Web-native design and graphics haven’t gotten the notoriety that they’re due. Interactive graphics are wonderful (when done right) at telling stories better than traditional print graphics. But it’s difficult to learn to do it right, and producing them is extremely time-consuming.

Slow going



Interactive graphics aren’t new, but they’re not yet commonplace either. Knight Ridder Tribune Information Services was an early leader in developing animated news graphics for Web sites, under the leadership of George Rorick. (Rorick is now on the visual journalism faculty of the Poynter Institute.) While at KRT, he made a big push toward producing interactive info-graphics for use by news sites. Unfortunately, the use of animated and interactive graphics has yet to catch on in a big way, in part due to lousy economic conditions and staff cutbacks at news sites over the last year.

Rorick says the use of animated graphics (mostly produced using the software application Flash) nevertheless continues to grow modestly but steadily, year after year. “It’s a good idea, and it’s not going away,” he says.

Some of the best animated news graphics for the Web are coming out of Spain, and the competing newspaper sites of El Mundo and El Pais. On a consistent basis, those newspaper sites produce animated, interactive infographics or story presentations. Following the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the U.S., the two sites produced some of the best animated graphics on the Web. (See El Pais‘ Sept. 11 graphic and El Mundo‘s graphic.)

In the U.S., it’s a bit harder to find that level of commitment to Flash graphics. Excellent Flash work has been produced by USAToday.com, MSNBC.com, Sun-Sentinel.com and other major news sites — especially right after Sept. 11. (Cyberjournalist.net lists some of the best Flash packages covering those events.)

On an ongoing basis, one of the leaders in interactive graphics is the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The Tribune Co. newspaper’s Web site routinely features interactive and animated graphics, which are produced by a 10-member graphics department that serves both print and online.

The department is headed by Graphics Director Don Wittekind, who along with Assistant Graphics Director R. Scott Horner teaches a series of traveling two-day New Media Workshops for SND — which covers the theory behind animated/interactive graphics and hands-on instruction with using the Flash application.

The Sun-Sentinel is doing it right, says Rorick, because it uses the model of a combined graphics department. The staff produces graphics for the print edition, often crafting them into animated graphics with adding additional layers of animation and sound for the Web. The same staff produces Web-only interactive graphics periodically.

This is really the only way to go, says Rorick, because of the cost-efficiencies of converging print and online operations. At El Mundo, in contrast, there are separate print and online graphics departments. Rorick, who consults for the newspaper, says the departments don’t communicate much, and management complains about the high manpower cost of producing interactive Web graphics — even though the paper is committed to them and does some of the best Flash work on the planet.

“It gets down to convergence,” he says. Print and online artists need to work together and be in on news planning meetings, so that they can coordinate their efforts and utilize each other’s work, rather than duplicate it for their respective medium. “Operating separately is a waste of money,” says Rorick.

Most North American newspapers don’t appear to be listening. In an informal survey of SND members conducted last fall by the association’s new media committee, it was found that the majority of papers did not have integrated art departments that produced work for both print and online. (In contrast, more Scandinavian newspapers have integrated departments than not.)

Are you Flashy?



Animated graphics for the Web are still considered a luxury, it would seem, by most newspapers. The SND survey found that less than one-quarter of art departments used Flash, and of those not using it for animated graphics, only 20% expected to begin using it in 2002. (For animated graphics, Flash has become the de facto standard at newspapers, just as Illustrator and Freehand are the standard applications used for 2-D print graphics.)

Martha Stone, an interactive news media consultant and SND new media committee chair, says those newspaper art departments that do produce Flash graphics are mostly limiting their use to those that will have a long shelf life — and not so much for breaking news, unless it’s a profound event like the Sept. 11 attacks. A comment from the SND survey: “We only use Flash for special content. If we used it on a daily basis, we would need to double our staff size.”

For instance, some of the first people at MSNBC.com to begin preparing for the Winter Olympics were the “Flash jockeys” who produced animated info-graphics for the various sports, Stone says. Those can be used in future Olympic Games, with some updating. (Here’s an example.) A few years ago, the Sun-Sentinel‘s artists created a cute high-tech Santa’s sleigh Flash graphic, which continues to get tens of thousands of views each holiday season.

Most everyone now gets it



No discussion of Web interactive graphics is complete without considering the impact of bandwidth and Internet access trends. Flash actually produces relatively small files, which often are tolerable to watch even on dial-up connections (though the experience is typically far better on a broadband connection), says the Sun-Sentinel‘s Wittekind, so it’s a decent application to use. Also, more than 90% of Web browser users now have Flash installed in their computers — so the issue of Internet users needing to download special software to view a graphic has now gone away almost entirely.

Rorick says one of the most exciting areas of news print graphics is 3-D modeling software and its application to newspapers. Those programs typically produce large files, however, that would choke all but the fastest Internet connections. Ergo, Flash is the best technology for now for creating interactive graphics.

The best is ahead of us



What’s the current state of animated Web graphics? Ruel, coordinator of the SND.ies, says that for the first month of the new contest, she’s been receiving quality work — but on the 1-5 scale that volunteer judges rate the entries, “there’s not a lot of 5 work out there yet, honestly.”

She thinks the field of animated online graphics is still in its infancy, and some of the early work suffers flaws from the lack of experience that news artists have with Flash. There’s still too much “animation for animation’s sake,” Ruel suggests. Her advice for producing award-winning work: Know what tools like Flash and other multimedia programs are capable of, and call on them when it’s the right time.




Letters to the Editor

From Milverton Wallace, proprietor of the NetMedia awards in the UK:

“Your recent column (‘Newspapers: Don’t Blow It Again‘) was a joy to read.

“I’m fed up with the doom-mongerers and naysayers of the digital media world. Frankly, if newspaper executives can’t (or don’t know how to) lay the foundation for profitable operation in the business, they shouldn’t ‘stand in the doorway and block up the hallway.’

“Maybe it’s true you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Managers who are fixated on delivery of messages cannot understand that, in the interactive age, communication works best when it’s a conversation. While the kids (read: future customers) are into connecting, interacting and conversing, our execs think bombarding them with news alerts is real cool!

“It’s tempting to conclude that this generation of news execs will never cut it. Perhaps we’ll have to wait until today’s 18-24-year-olds step into the executive suites to realize the full potential of digital media!”



From Mark Potts, commenting on the same column:

“I wasn’t in San Jose (for E&P’s Interactive Newspapers Conference), but from reading your column and other coverage of the convention, and from my experiences with these conferences in the past, I’m struck that all of the brave, forward-looking talk is essentially worthless unless newspaper industry officials — the print people — hear it. Moreover, these online execs need to step forward and truly do some innovative work rather than just aping what every other newspaper site is doing.

“It’s fine for online executives to pat themselves on the back and claim they have a vision for the future and aver that we’ve only just begun to explore this medium — which is quite true — but if they’re the only ones who hear such talk, it’s like a tree falling in the forest (oops, bad paper-related pun!).

“I’m afraid that traditional print people still don’t get it, for the most part, and are still clinging tightly — in some ways, because of the economy, more tightly than ever — to the old-media ways. The print folks rarely if ever hear the kind of smart, visionary things that are said by the Bob Cauthorns of the world. Indeed, with the economy slumping and Web sites no closer to profitability, there’s a lot of smug “I told you so” activity going around the traditional print side. That Web thing, it’s just a flash in the pan — the CB radio of the ’90s, they think, as they slice a few more bodies or bucks out of the online budget.

“That’s tragic, and it’s always going to hold the online industry back. Somehow, there’s got to be a way to expose the print people to some really visionary thinking (and execution) in a way they can’t easily dismiss as just the musings of their own, slightly nuts new-media people. They need exposure to a broad collection of these voices — maybe the ASNE or APME or NAA conventions need to really devote a substantial proportion of their time to the online world. THAT might get things moving a bit.

“It’s also disheartening that there seems to be so little experimentation going on. All newspaper sites are beginning to look the same, and it’s pretty boring. The new Knight Ridder common platform, while an interesting approach, is frighteningly generic. The latimes.com victory in the best overall site EPpy balloting is particularly distressing — that site doesn’t seem to be much more than the newspaper online, and that shouldn’t be what online journalism is about. I’m no longer as close to the industry as I once was, but as a more-than-casual user of many of these sites, I’m seeing virtually nothing anymore that stretches the boundaries, thinks outside the box — or does much more than replicate the newspaper online.

“Technologies and delivery systems like broadband, wireless, e-mail and even Flash are upon us, and virtually no newspaper-based sites are taking advantage of them. Instead, they’re retrenching to what amounts to better-looking versions of the simple, print-metaphor-inspired sites that were the standard five or six years ago. Very distressing. The very sad fact is that there were more interesting, innovative sites — Boston.com, the great Hotcoco.com in Contra Costa County, the old SFGate — a few years ago than there are now.

“Somebody’s got to tell the corporate folks that the game isn’t even close to over yet, and this is not anywhere near a mature medium. It’s not enough for online execs to tell each other that — the bosses need to know. And then somebody’s got to put their vision where their mouth is and try building something that really breaks the mold of ‘global nav over the top, section nav down the side, bunch of headlines in the middle.’ Otherwise, the skepticism about newspaper Web sites will, sadly, become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”






Other recent columns

In case you missed recent Stop The Presses!, here are links to the last few columns:

Newspapers: Don’t Blow It Again, Wednesday, Feb. 13
Product Placement On Newspaper Web Sites?, Wednesday, Jan. 23
Use Web To Supplement Your Print Edition, Wednesday, Jan. 9
Preparing For the Upturn, Wednesday, Dec. 19
Industry Must Cooperate To Save News Sites, Wednesday, Dec. 12
Tying Print To Online During Hard Times, Wednesday, Nov. 28
Previous columns




Get Stop The Presses! by e-mail

If you would like to get e-mail delivery of the Stop The Presses! column, there are two options:

1) Text e-mail. I send out a text e-mail message containing abrief description of the current column, along with a URL link to theactual column on the E&P Web site. To receive these regular reminders, signup here.

2) HTML e-mail. If you prefer to receive the entire column, you can have it delivered to you as an HTML e-mail message whenever a new column is published. Sign up here.

Steve




Got a tip? Let me know about it

If you have a newsworthy item about the online news media business, please send me a note.

RSS
Follow by Email
Facebook
Facebook
Twitter
Visit Us
LinkedIn

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *