NICAR16: They're coming for us: How platforms shape the way we tell stories

One of the recurring themes of NICAR was how graphics reporters and news apps developers are grappling with new distribution platforms like Facebook Instant Articles, Google AMP and even Snapchat. There is no one canonical version of a graphic. Instead, you might create different versions of it for different platforms: a fancy D3 interaction for the mobile web, a fun GIF for Twitter and a static image for Facebook Instant Articles.

One of the key challenges facing news apps developers is determining how to spend resources to optimize the experience for for a given project across all these different platforms.

"Modern distribution channels don’t allow for the type of complex interactions that are being built. Your complicated touch event code is now a 400KB gif," said the Guardian's Troy Griggs.

At sessions like "Creating snackable and shareable dataviz," “Command line graphics" and "Data viz for all" there was lots of talk about shifting away from graphics and apps with complex interactions towards simpler, static graphics that work anywhere on any platform.

The Washington Post's Aaron Williams talked about how when he designs data visualizations, he thinks about how to turn them into GIFs as a part of his process. GIFs can be more easily shared on social media and can be embedded into some of the more restrictive platforms that don't allow for custom JavaScript.

Tooltips were the scapegoat at a few of these panels.

"Death to tooltips," said Aaron Williams. "We've gotten away with them because they were easy."

In a hallway conversation I had with BuzzFeed News' Peter Aldhous, he said that the main interaction he thinks about when designing data visualizations is a person scrolling on a phone.

"There are only a few types of interactions that work particularly well on mobile," said the Tampa Bay Times' Nathaniel Lash. And these new distribution channels, compared to the mobile web, are even more limited.

While these new platforms pose some ethical questions for how newsrooms distribute their work, they seem to be an inevitable part of the future that we have to grapple with.

In a conversation session on the topic, some people wondered if there was a discrepancy between what tech companies and news organizations need out of these platforms. Others were concerned that newsrooms might not invest in projects that couldn't be shared on Facebook Instant Articles.

Perhaps though, we can see these platforms as a way to refine our storytelling and meet people where they are. Simpler graphics might be easier to produce and more likely to work on a range of platforms.

We have our work cut out for us, but it'll be exciting to see how news apps developers respond to this changing landscape.

About the author

Alex Duner

Student Fellow

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