HOME
          
LATEST STORY
The Apple Watch will expose how little publishers know about their readers
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
April 27, 2011, 11 a.m.

AP Interactive visualizes a future of stories that reach beyond text

Over the past two years, the Associated Press has nearly doubled the number of interactive graphics it produces each month, jumping from 40 in 2009 to over 70 so far in 2011. On the surface, that increase is logical almost to the point of being unsurprising: The AP, after all, makes a lot of stuff that serves a lot of clients, and the demand for interactives is growing.

But while the AP’s Interactive department is pumping out a steady amount of work, it’s what they’re creating — and how they’re creating it — that’s really interesting: from data visualizations to mash-ups of video, maps, and animation that can jump from website to phone to (soon enough) tablet. Often, they’re creating those features against the backdrop of breaking news.

Data visualization is “going through a kind of renaissance in journalism,” said Shazna Nessa, director of Interactive for the AP. What’s really behind the news collective’s uptick in graphics, she told me, is a kind of evolutionary change in journalism — one that’s reflected in the Interactive unit itself. Once a repository of charts and maps, the department is now creating what Nessa described as “comprehensive interactive stories,” and we can expect to see a lot more of them.

When most people think of the AP, they think of the global army of correspondents reporting stories that appear in papers and websites. More and more, though, the AP brand is also coming to represent interactive features that convey the news. And though the Interactive department has undergone a dramatic shift in recent years to be able to produce interactive graphics, it’s still providing the qualities newspapers have relied on the AP for for years, Nessa noted: speed, accuracy, and a vast network of resources.

The trick in being able to roll out these features so quickly (and likely another reason the department has increased its output) is the usage of templates, Nessa said. That basic form allows the artists, programmers, and others on staff to publish graphics quickly — and to continuously update them as more information comes in from reporters. That’s why when events like Japan’s earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit, you could find not only breaking reports from the AP, in text, but also incredible photography and interactive graphics that harnessed reporting from correspondents as well as accounts and images from on-the-ground witnesses.

After the department’s first Japan feature was published, its staff began creating regular interactive updates to the story, including timelines and damage reports from the effected prefectures around Sendai, as well as information from reporters tweeting from the field. All wrapped together, they produced robust features covering the earthquake, the tsunami, and then the unfolding nuclear problems — features that combined animation, video, and a mix of contributor and staff photography.

In the case of the earthquake in Japan, the team’s first interactive feature was up in around four hours, Nessa said — and that was largely thanks to using templates. “It creates structure and helps organize the storytelling,” she noted. Building some uniformity into the production process, “we can scale more and faster than we have in the past.”

And that is possible, in turn, Nessa said, because of a reorganization of the Interactive department that’s taken place over the last several years. The team moved away from simply being “the infographics guys,” adding the multimedia and GraphicsBank (AP visuals for TV) departments to become an uber-graphics house. Even so, though, there was still a hole, Nessa said. The unit needed people handy with Actionscript, Ruby on Rails, and Flash to complete the team. (People like, say, Lab contributor Jonathan Stray, now the AP’s Interactive Technology editor.) The change was clearly meant to align with the ways people are consuming news online.

“It’s integral to everything we do,” Nessa said of the team’s reliance on programmers. “In my opinion it was the missing piece for a while. We’ve been able to really grow since filling that missing piece.”

As Nessa described it, the team needed to be both technically and journalistically proficient. When building a package to explain cadmium contamination risks in drinking glasses, for example, you have to combine an eye for code with a reporter’s sense for the nut graf. It’s about knowing what information is important and the right structure to use to convey it. “We wanted a department more specialized in visual storytelling and things that add value to sites and devices of customers,” Nessa said.

But there’s another value in having a staff that walks in the worlds of both journalism and programming: the ability to see things in news stories that others may have missed. So much news now starts with documents and information, not just catastrophes and events, and it’s necessary to have people who can stare through a block of data and see the story on the other end. That’s one of the reasons the AP applied for a Knight News Challenge grant to create Overview, a tool that would help reporters examine large data sets.

New devices and new platforms are the next step for the interactive graphics team, Nessa said. Readers have a need and expectation for new ways to experience news, whether it’s through smartphones or tablets, and the AP’s clients want to respond to that expectation. Nessa said the AP is moving away from Flash graphics and experimenting with HTML5 to make content that works across different devices. And while the bulk of her staff is focusing on day-to-day graphics needs, she said they also make time to explore different ways of displaying the news. That may mean HTML5, video, or even — yes — animated gifs.

“The possibilities are different depending on the format,” she said. “The layering of information is now about depth rather than the space it takes up in a newspaper.”

POSTED     April 27, 2011, 11 a.m.
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
The Apple Watch will expose how little publishers know about their readers
Apple’s new wearable may or may not be a big hit. But either way, it’s a harbinger of a new class of truly personal devices whose users will demand customized experiences. News companies aren’t ready to provide them.
Newsonomics: The Vox/Recode deal is a sign of more consolidation to come
With venture funders itching for an exit, a few corporate giants — Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, the new Charter — could end up owning many of the entrepreneurial news brands that have captured attention in recent years. Big is eating small.
News as a design challenge: New ideas for news’ future from MIT
Students and Nieman Fellows spent a semester building solutions for audience engagement, better tools to explore data, and new ideas for local media startups.
What to read next
973
tweets
The State of the News Media 2015: Newspapers ↓, smartphones ↑
The annual omnibus report from Pew outlines a story of continued trends more than radical change.
670What happened when a college newspaper abandoned its website for Medium and Twitter
At Mt. San Antonio College, they’ve traded in print for distributed publishing, focusing on realtime reporting and distribution: “We’re speaking the language of our generation.”
576The Upshot uses geolocation to push readers deeper into data
The New York Times story changes its text depending on where you’re reading it: “It’s a fine line between a smarter default and being creepy.”
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
National Review
DNAinfo
Gawker Media
The Economist
Journal Register Co.
The New Republic
NewsTilt
Knight Foundation
Circa
U.S. News & World Report
La Nación
Examiner.com