Fun interactive visual tools: Why should journalists care?

Last week I wrote a lot about various interactive visual tools that can help people connect differently or more deeply with news and information. This was for a session I led at a Knight Digital Media Center seminar for the leaders of the News21 project.

Yeah, so what? Why should journalists and news organizations care about these tools? How can this help their communities, journalism, and (most critical right now) business opportunities? What’s in it for journos and news brands?

That’s what Meabh Ritchie, a reporter for the U.K. Press Gazette asked me to clarify. She’s writing a story on this, and I’ll link to it when it’s up in February 2009. The short answer is: This stuff is effective and (more importantly) FUN! — for journalists and news audiences.

But here’s the full version of my answer…

…By the way, the tools I demoed for the News21 educators were Gigapan, ManyEyes, Silobreaker, and the interactive/realtime graphics at Envirovote. UNC professor Don Wittekind demoed Flash games and calculators. Also, multimedia journalist and 10000 Words blogger Mark Luckie demoed Mapbuilder, Dipity, Intersquash, and Widgetbox.

Generally, I think the value of using interactive visual tools in sharing news, info, and journalism is that people don’t just think in words — so words often aren’t always the only or best way to tell a story. Furthermore, words, static graphics, and linear multimedia (audio or video that just plays) are almost NEVER the best way to encourage people to explore a story, so they can discover their own points of relevance and interest.

In short, interactive visual tools make news and info far more personal, compelling, and fun. And right now, news definitely could use a whole lot more fun — in its creation, content, and experience.

…Don’t kid yourself: There are valid, important reasons why Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are kicking butt as news sources while newspapers are declining and dying. People need to laugh. Also, fun and humor are elegant, effective ways to layer context and insight onto information — and to just give people enough motivation to get interested and stay “tuned in.” The “eat your veggies” approach so common in the mainstream journalism mindset definitely has problems.

Oh, and speaking of interactive visual stuff, did you see Stephen Colbert’s Green Screen Challenge? Here’s the winning entry:

But I digress…

Used well, interactive visualizations inherently have far more potential to engage and involve people than passive “you just read/watch/listen to us” media. Plus, they tend to get people’s imagination and pattern-recognition abilities cranking.

Playing with visualization tools (especially applying them to data you think might yield a story) can help you find stories or angles. I regularly use ManyEyes to help me spot patterns or anomalies, particularly with data related to energy or the environment.

On the business side for ad-supported sites (or other sites where success is measured at least partly by traffic), visualization tools applied to news tend to “go viral,” attracting tons of inbound links, which boosts search visibility. Unlike most kinds of news content, this traffic tends to build, not decline, over time. This content also can be widgetized or made embeddable, providing a powerful teaser that gets people interested in your stories and then steers them back to your site for full coverage — or that at least promotes your news brand.

Finally, many great interactive visualization tools are free and easy to learn and use. They all take practice and have their quirks, but this stuff is not rocket science. You don’t need a programmer or even much money or time to make this work. Even an independent journalist working alone can make good use of them.

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