NICAR 2015: On the necessity of interactivity

Data. Interactive. D3. X charts and Y graphs that explain Z. I feel that we’ve reached a point where “interactive” has become an empty buzzword in journalism. It’s amazing how quickly interest and adoption of news apps and data visualization has grown in the last few years (just look at the sheer size of this year’s NICAR conference), but as interactive and data-driven journalism becomes more pervasive, we also need to reexamine the meaning of “interactivity” itself and, more importantly, what it means for different roles in the newsroom.

The question of interactivity and collaboration was a consistent theme across the conference. Ashlyn Still’s lightning talk argued that not every story needs a cool interactive. “Don’t force visuals solely for the sake of visuals.” Lily Mihalik and Anthony Pesce talked about how to bridge the gap between designers and developers in their lightning talk, particularly when it comes to language. The “work your magic” language transforms the efforts of any news apps, data or visuals team into a black box. These teams are not wizards or magicians — they’re storytellers and subject matter experts. Their work should not be an afterthought. “Oh, can you make this interactive?” at the last minute rarely produces a satisfying result for anyone, including the reader. Instead, Mihalik and Pesce advise us to learn to “speak each other’s love language,” whether that’s learning how to use Github or learning the importance of three extra pixels to a story’s visual design.

Mihalik and Pesce on "work your magic" language

I also attended a panel on "Thinking about interactivity" moderated by Robert Hernandez where Mariana Santos, Trina Chiasson, and Melissa Bell discussed their organizations’ different approaches to making pieces “interactive” and answered questions about how to execute such projects.

When do you know a story is worth the time and resources to make it interactive?

“If editorial doesn’t have the time or space to think about design and development, it won’t be worthwhile to put resources into a project,” Bell explained, emphasizing that prioritization for both development and editorial is crucial to ensuring a strong collaboration. For data, Santos and Chiasson think heavily about whether there’s a strong narrative that can be extracted and whether readers can “find themselves in the data.” Chiasson used a piece by BBC News about the world’s population reaching seven billion as a simple example. By allowing the reader to enter in their birthday to see where they fit in the seven billion, the interactive provides a mix of personalization as well as a broad view of the data.

How do you guard against too many cooks?

Bell advised people to organize the moving parts of a project and think about who is responsible for different components. Daily meetings can be helpful just to identify problems and discuss how each person’s job overlaps with others’. Everyone is an expert on something, whether it’s reporting, video editing or programming. Focusing on what each person is bringing to the table helps delegate decision-making and pinpoints opportunities for collaboration.

How do you say no to an interactive request without burning bridges in the newsroom?

Santos and Chiasson note that there are times when “interactivity” is appropriate and times when it is not. Other times, there simply may not be the time and resources to take on a new project. The challenge comes when an enthusiastic journalist contacts someone on the interactive team after a story has been reported and written and simply asks for some of that interactive magic.

Instead of turning down such a request without explanation, Santos advises bringing said enthusiastic journalist into their thought process. What purpose is interactivity serving? How does it enhance the story? What aspects of the story can be translated purposefully with interactivity? By asking these kinds of questions, we can help people reframe the way they think about interactivity. It should be something that reporters and editors actively think about even in the early stages of a story, not just an add-on at the very end.

Should reporters learn to make their own stories interactive?

No one should be pressured to become a coding expert just because they work on big features or wrangle big data. There are so many amazing tools out there for reporters that can help them to easily create their own interactive elements — why not take advantage of these resources? “The goal is to empower people who may not have backgrounds in statistics or programming to dig in and get a sense that they can create things that are interesting with data,” said Chiasson.

However, knowledge sharing can be helpful for reporters who are interested in having more control of the presentation of their own stories. Santos challenged the idea of creating “one-off” projects, which are unlikely to be worth diving deep into a certain technology for budding journalist-turned-coders. Instead, journalists should aim to create “persistent resources” and build skill sets that can be carried over from project to project.

About the author

Nicole Zhu

Undergraduate Fellow

Interested in visual storytelling and building products for news. Studying computer science and English at Northwestern.

Latest Posts

  • Introducing StorylineJS

    Today we're excited to release a new tool for storytellers.

    StorylineJS makes it easy to tell the story behind a dataset, without the need for programming or data visualization expertise. Just upload your data to Google Sheets, add two columns, and fill in the story on the rows you want to highlight. Set a few configuration options and you have an annotated chart, ready to embed on your website. (And did we mention, it looks great on phones?) As with all of our tools, simplicity...

    Continue Reading

  • Join us in October: NU hosts the Computation + Journalism 2017 symposium

    An exciting lineup of researchers, technologists and journalists will convene in October for Computation + Journalism Symposium 2017 at Northwestern University. Register now and book your hotel rooms for the event, which will take place on Friday, Oct. 13, and Saturday, Oct. 14 in Evanston, IL. Hotel room blocks near campus are filling up fast! Speakers will include: Ashwin Ram, who heads research and development for Amazon’s Alexa artificial intelligence (AI) agent, which powers the...

    Continue Reading

  • Bringing Historical Data to Census Reporter

    A Visualization and Research Review

    An Introduction Since Census Reporter’s launch in 2014, one of our most requested features has been the option to see historic census data. Journalists of all backgrounds have asked for a simplified way to get the long-term values they need from Census Reporter, whether it’s through our data section or directly from individual profile pages. Over the past few months I’ve been working to make that a reality. With invaluable feedback from many of you,......

    Continue Reading

  • How We Brought A Chatbot To Life

    Best Practice Guide

    A chatbot creates a unique user experience with many benefits. It gives the audience an opportunity to ask questions and get to know more about your organization. It allows you to collect valuable information from the audience. It can increase interaction time on your site. Bot prototype In the spring of 2017, our Knight Lab team examined the conversational user interface of Public Good Software’s chatbot, which is a chat-widget embedded within media partner sites.......

    Continue Reading

  • Stitching 360° Video

    For the time-being, footage filmed on most 360° cameras cannot be directly edited and uploaded for viewing immediately after capture. Different cameras have different methods of outputting footage, but usually each camera lens corresponds to a separate video file. These video files must be combined using “video stitching” software on a computer or phone before the video becomes one connected, viewable video. Garmin and other companies have recently demonstrated interest in creating cameras that stitch......

    Continue Reading

  • Publishing your 360° content

    Publishing can be confusing for aspiring 360° video storytellers. The lack of public information on platform viewership makes it nearly impossible to know where you can best reach your intended viewers, or even how much time and effort to devote to the creation of VR content. Numbers are hard to come by, but were more available in the beginning of 2016. At the time, most viewers encountered 360° video on Facebook. In February 2016, Facebook......

    Continue Reading

Storytelling Tools

We build easy-to-use tools that can help you tell better stories.

View More