The Dos and Don'ts of Providing Interactive Content

Mar 112015
  • Former ICFJ Knight Fellow Mariana Santos spoke at the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting conference about how Fusion uses interactive games to make news appealing to millennials.

No one could get to all of the more than 200 sessions at the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting conference (NICAR 2015) in Atlanta last week – not even with one of Hermione Granger’s time-turners. If you somehow managed to do it, though, you’d come away with a new tip, app or big idea from nearly every single one.

The conference offered something for everyone who uses data and technology for investigative reporting, as you might expect from an event orchestrated by Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE). There were tech, app and data how-to sessions, along with discussions about the danger of falling into the scary rabbit holes created by big data.

The "Thinking about interactivity" panel, moderated by Robert Hernandez of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, examined when – or when not – to offer interactive content. Panelists included Vox's Melissa Bell, Infoactive's Trina Chiasson and Fusion's Mariana Santos, a JSK Knight Fellow at Stanford University and a recent ICFJ Knight Fellow.

  • “You have to be smart about when you say no,” said Bell, kick-starting a theme that ran through the discussion. Specifically, she cautioned that newsrooms should resist the temptation to create too many interactives, which can push a project off track and off schedule. How can newsrooms make smart choices? Make sure everyone, especially editors, are involved early on in big content decisions, she said.

  • Not all graphics are or can be interactive, Infoactive's Chiasson noted. When working with simple data, she suggested, ask yourself if it’s appropriate to have the user hover over the data or if it's better to simply add numbers directly onto the graphic. Interactives work best when they give users multiple options for viewing data, she said.

  • Santos said Fusion is using gaming as a way to make news appealing to millennials. For example, some Fusion interactives let users choose their own paths through a story. Depending on the user's decisions, the experience and outcome will be different. Another approach allowed users to experience a story by “walking in the shoes” of the main character.

Speaking from the audience, Brian Boyer, NPR’s visuals editor, offered his own tip: “Don’t pour everything into one interactive,” he said. Boyer recommended working on one good application that can be used on more than one story. This way, you get to know what works and then carry that from project to project. “This is how to build a body of work that cumulatively gets better,” he said.

Bell agreed, saying one-offs aren’t the answer when creating interactives. Instead, it’s best to build something that attracts audiences to return to a site or a story to dig deeper or to see updated data.

For more tips from NICAR15, click here.

This post is also published on IJNet, which is produced by ICFJ.