State of the interactive journalism: overcoming newsrooms crisis

In the age of Facebook, Snapchat and other social platforms, media and newsrooms are facing greater challenges in a battle for readers attention. Your newsroom may have the very authentic and insightful topic, but what can beat cat videos and Spongebob memes on Facebook feed?

Researches suggest, the average time of interaction with a piece of a content is steadily falling. In the modern media there is less room for investigations, long-reads, analytics and interviews. To win readers, newsrooms are forced to use new storytelling technologies to present fresh formats and effectively integrate them into modern media environment.

We talked with more than 50 experts working on the development of new formats for journalism and media to present the most significant trends and to show how the editors should adapt to the new realities. Here are our findings.

Why go interactive? Motivation.

Interactive projects, in which content is presented in live and dynamic way, adapting to a user inputs, allow to overcome the crisis of content and successfully compete with social networks for the attention. Interest in using interactive projects will only grow. However, one need to constantly think about how users would interact with new formats, whether they want to do so and what added value can interactivity bring in. The inappropriate usage of interactive elements can only lead to losing audience attention. We have identified some common patterns of applicability of interactive formats, mentioned by experts.

Personalization is the #1 mentioned approach to developing interactive projects. The ability to receive input from a user allows you to adapt the material for a specific reader needs, increasing the engagement and usefulness of the content. A popular concept of microservices that solve the readers’ problems (cost calculations, individual recommendations, etc.) is gaining more traction in modern newsrooms. This helps editorials to become a trusted partner for the reader.

The Washington Post interactive tax grid allows to see how do you fit in new tax bill

Gamification is an approach that allows you to embed game mechanics in journalism. This approach helps to attract the attention of readers and create a new layer of interaction between media and the audience. The advantage of using this approach is that the reader can become a hero of the story, can touch the narrative from the within. Game indicators (like state variables, acquired achievements and so) also allow more control over attention focus and user engagement, quickly making content viral.

The Uber Game by FT, featuring dozens of drivers interviews, makes you literally feel, what it takes to earn money with Uber

Modeling — presenting of data and stories through interactive models, which allow user to tweak some input parameters and immediately see model response. The reader receives a certain control over the narrative, which greatly increases the involvement. Modeling often requires to capture and process large amount of source data to account for all possible user inputs, but allows audience to explore massive data in a convenient way, enabling active learning and trends discovery. Brett Victor proposed a general concept of an active reader and explorable document (which are essentially models). Many experts agree that building a loyal community of active readers is an important aspect which can’t be abandoned in newsroom development strategy.

Interactive map, showcasing etiquette data
Electricity consumption modeling

Going the hard path? Problems.

Misinterpretation of interactive formats and interactive journalism. In modern media and social networks we see the proliferation of quick interactive formats, like ‘top lists’, ‘personality quizzes’ and similar. While usage of interactivity is proven to increase engagement (that’s why there are so many quick interactive formats and tools), many authors now link interactivity only with quick entertainment formats. There is no common perception and vision about how interactive technology can help tell true journalism stories, as most of successful professional interactive projects are very custom, so they perceived as exceptions, not as a rule.

The culture of using interactive technologies in journalism is very young . So, experts agree, it is necessary to develop patterns and practices of using interactive formats to tell important insightful stories, to present data and hidden trends through simple, personal and engaging way.

Entertainment and engaging, internet full of such quizzes and tests

The development of interactive projects remains an expensive and complex task. Interactive journalism — news, articles, long-reads — require flexible formats, nowadays developed individually for each particular story. There are many programming libraries aimed at simplifying interactive production (scrollytell.js, d3.js, etc.), but given the absence of established practices and patterns in the field, every new project is planned and designed almost from scratch. Such special projects require the coordinated work of the interactive content department, which includes authors, programmers and illustrators. Only large editorials can afford such a department.

Subspotting, cellular signal strength data in subway. Required to develop the whole app only for this single data-based story

It is extremely difficult to craft the appropriate interactive representation for a particular story. Interactive technology can be used to enhance lots of stories, but inappropriate application only repels readers, making content more complicated and confusing. We need to think a lot about what value can interactivity add for a particular story. Are we simplifying the data perception? Highlighting hidden trends? Reducing time needed to extract useful information from a story? Making some personal impact on our readers? We need to have reliable ways of selecting the appropriate formats for different types of journalism, for different source data and stories. We believe such patterns exist, but we need to look at a huge number of examples to understand and describe these practices. And that is where AI can step in. Learning from tons of existing published work can enable computer to assist the reporter by suggesting format ideas for a story.

Many CMS systems do not support the integration of third-party components. It is necessary to develop a mechanism for embedding interactive widgets in existing content management systems. WordPress, the most popular one, has a complex and intricate API interface. There are ready-to-use tools and libraries for interactive production exist, but it is often impossible to integrate them into editorial workflow due to existing CMS limitations. So, we want to have the unified and reliable way of embedding interactive parts into our content. And experts agree, we should approach the unification from both ends, CMS can be extended to support bare third-party HTML, while tools can offer seamless integration with many popular CMS.

CMS integrations can be painful and full of code :)

Where to start? Tools.

Many tools for creating interactive content contain a narrow set of non-customizable formats (quiz, test, poll). That fact greatly limits their applicability in journalism, where reporters demand strong customization capabilities. Many platforms are aimed at developing interactive formats for marketing, not journalism. Cost estimators and product contests may be engaging and efficient formats, but for journalism, we demand more.

Another class of tools exist for producing data visualisations, like bars, charts, tables, diagrams, etc. The most mentioned platform in our survey was DataWrapper. It is a quick and simple tool to get you started with data-based stories. While it is not an interactive content engine, many stories get major boost in views, shares and impact, when enriched with data visuals, so it is a simple yet powerful way to start.

D3.JS is the popular JavaScript library for creating custom interactive stories. A powerful engine for data-driven stories, as well as for rich animated applications with user inputs, though still requires you to be a programmer. While many reporters point out, that programming is the ultimate form of freedom in the digital world, that freedom doesn’t come free. Programming is a difficult and time-consuming activity and, if you don’t have the interactive production team at your disposal, you may want to look for other tools which limits your freedom somehow, but gives you quick outcomes.

Opposite to many platforms for creating quizzes and sliders, we found one project, which is aimed at creating interactive tools for true journalism and quality storytelling. KnightLab is an independent interactive reporting laboratory, part of Northwestern University. They created timeline and interactive map tools, which were used by many top players in industry, including CNN, The Washington Post.

Time’s interactive project, based on KnightLab timeline tool

At StaffWriter, we inspired by the approach taken by KnightLab and want to deep dive more into problems of interactive technology applicability to true journalism and storytelling. We are constantly working on finding sustainable patterns, aka building blocks for creating customizable interactive projects. In contrast to many others, we don’t start with interactive formats in mind, we rather research stories, news, articles and data to discover, how particular source materials can become better stories through interactivity. We put that approach as a foundation of what we are building within Staffwriter. We would publish our research further, to share which sources and content patterns are best candidates to become interactive projects. Keep in touch!