It is no secret that the newspaper industry is in serious financial trouble. Many argue that the age of newspapers as we know it is over. The only interesting part of the debate seems to be what “newspapers” could become if they fully embraced digital reality.
One of the early indicators of that future has been the coverage of the 2008 Presidential elections by newspapers’ online extensions. The New York Times, for example, has been consistently exploring various novel ways of bringing visual clarity and richness online to what would otherwise be dry data in newsprint:
The online versions of newspapers have moved far from the dead-trees-archived-in-microfiche mindset by attempting to become digital centers of research for ordinary readers. As the “newspaper of record” that’s a good thing for the New York Times. The web offers infinite space and flexible time, two items conspicuously absent from print designers’ toolbox. But as gifted as the Times graphic designers are, the editorial approach to information visualization seems still mired in a static, 2D print world.
A recent election results map depicts “difference in support for major parties between 2008 and past elections”:
By clicking on the map, readers can drill down from national to state to county level results in a few clicks:
While this is infinitely better than what would otherwise be endless pages of mind-numbing statistics in newsprint, it’s still quite linear and vertical. What’s missing is a timeline, a “narrative” on the horizontal axis of time. Yes, there’s a handy slider to switch the map to four-year intervals to see snapshots of electoral change, but that requires readers to stitch together the narrative by themselves, which they likely won’t do to full effect.
The analytics problem here is how to visually present the county-level swing between the Republican and Democratic axis across four election cycles, comparing 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004 each to 2008. While the election-over-election differential is interesting, the real story is the transformation:
[I simply extracted and sequenced Times' four maps with a Year/President designation at the bottom. Red: Rep; blue: Dem.] There’s much to improve here, but a single, animated map frames the transformation in an unmistakable manner with an unforgettable conclusion. Research becomes insight…all without the need for any clicks, slides or drill-downs by the reader.
Maps are not enough
On the web, there are many venues to get the facts. What’s scarce is the narrative, the perspective, the insight that ties it all together in a time-effective way. In analytical terms, what’s missing is trend spotting, rendered with clarity that only digital technologies can make possible online. Every day, an unimaginable number of colorful reports and charts are printed to gain “business intelligence” in corporate America. What follows that is an unimaginable number of hours spent daily by armies of analysts to make sense of these reports. Insight is gained only, and very rarely, when the dots are connected in disjointed graphs, reports and maps to detect a trend along the time axis so an action can be taken in the future.
The currency of print-based newspapers has been the snapshot: what happened and when, in the past. To survive and thrive online, “newspapers” need to become trend spotters, trend explainers and thus storytellers of transformation which, when read or seen in small and disparate chunks as newspapers currently vend them, is often impossible to detect or interpret by ordinary readers. The currency of narration online is snapshots over time: animation.
The future of newspapers online, especially for great ones like the New York Times, is to become masters of not maps, facts, and drill-downs, but of the timeline: animate or die!