“Something for People to Do:” Multimedia and Interactivity

Consumers of online news sites are looking for more than words in their news. At least, that was the verdict in the second afternoon session of the International Symposium on Online Journalism, “Multimedia and Interactivity.” Users are looking for things to do while online, which can include audio, slideshows, video, and interactive information graphics that teach and entertain them simultaneously. The members of the panel, led by Howard Finberg, executive director of the Poynter Institute’s NewsU.org, spoke on widely varying topics within this vein of multimedia and interactivity.

The session started with Alberto Cairo, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who summed up the whole issue of interactivity on the Web by saying, “It’s not just video and audio anymore. You need something for people to do.”

Cairo outlined main trends in infographics in today’s news, including three levels of interactivity: instructing, manipulating, and exploring. He also described how news outlets are sharing their graphics with widgets and embeddable graphics. But linear narratives are still important, he said.

“The only way to survive in business is to create something that your competition doesn’t have,” Cairo said. “Citizen journalists will never be able to create graphics like this, so there will always be a market for mainstream news outlets.”

It’s those linear narratives that Paige West, director of interactive projects at MSNBC.com, thinks are worth the most.

“It’s no longer a debate over whether you should use interactivity,” West said. “Everybody does it, and if they don’t, they should. The question now is, what are all the mediums and how can they be integrated?”

The biggest problem, West said, is that many stories are “a spine of text with ornaments” that provide multimedia content on the other side of links.

“The words, the video, and the interactive all need to be in context,” West said. “It has to be an integrated narrative.”

West used the example of a piece on MSNBC.com that examined whether paper or plastic bags (or neither) were a better choice for economic and environmental reasons. Videos, sound clips, graphs, and interactive elements, such as a poll with instant comparative results of all the people who had taken the quiz, are all packaged with graphics of groceries coming down a conveyor belt toward a cashier.

“Of course, you can’t do this every day,” she said. “But there is time for something special every once in a while, if you plan ahead and make a special effort.”

Liz Nord, a supervising producer of MTV News, said that the model of broadcast is changing rapidly and giving people new and exciting ways to participate that were never available before. She presented MTV’s social network for youth activists, which helps them to organize for causes, but also to become citizen journalists in their own right. But, most importantly, it gets youth interested in politics. For a real-time broadcasted debate on MTV, online viewers were able to ask questions for candidates through an instant messaging system, as well as submitting their approval ratings as soon as a question had been answered. Then the candidates had to answer for their answers if the ratings were unsatisfactory.

“We wanted to do something new,” Nord said. “The theme this year is ‘How Will You Innovate in ’08?’ So naturally, we had to do something different. It’s important to experiment.”

There are 51 youth journalists, one from each state and Washington, D.C., who were hired to cover youth issues in the elections in their states. Most recently, they have been taught to use direct mobile-to-Web technology through FlixWagon, where video streams directly from a mobile device to the Web for viewers to see.

“Mobile is where it’s all headed,” Nord said. “There is less and less of a distinction between online and mobile.” As one member of “Street Team ‘08” reported in one of her direct mobile-to-Web casts, a fellow TV reporter with his hefty camera asked her if she was reporting. “This is live to Web, sir,” she said.

“It’s a whole new world for politics now,” Nord said. The work of Fernando Rodrigues, a reporter and columnist for the Folha de São Paulo newspaper of Brazil, is also affecting the world of politics in his home country. Rodrigues compiled a database with entries on more than 25,000 Brazilian politicians on all levels of government, which has ushered in a new era of accountability for politics in Brazil.

He said that there have been countless investigative news stories stemmed from the database, which includes, among other data, the politicians’ declared assets, with graphs showing the evolution of their assets while in office, and tax figures.

“There have been so many stories that came from this,” Rodrigues said. “There are politicians whose declared assets list their car as a cheap Volkswagen, and people call in to say they have a Mercedes. One politician bought a house that was worth more than his entire declared worth. Over 2,000 politicians have committed tax fraud.” In a country with no Freedom of Information Act, this type of database raises many new questions and possibilities for journalism and for politics. It has prompted a wave of citizen journalism, with citizens pointing out inconsistencies and asking questions they have never asked before.

“You have to offer a tool that’s useful to use,” Rodrigues said. “And then it’s met with success. Around the last election, the last time the database was updated, we had over a million visitors in a single day.”

Aron Pilhofer, interactive news editor for The New York Times, discussed the value of what he calls “opinionated data,” or data with a journalistic frame to it.

“When I say, ‘opinionated,’ it’s not misleading data,” he said. “It’s not biased data. But, more importantly, it’s not data dumping, or what I like to call data vomit.”

Pilhofer’s team of journalist-developers at the New York Times are, first and foremost, journalists, he says. Even if some of them are still learning the journalism part. “We work on news-focused data-driven projects,” he said. “We’re relatively nerdy journalists, but we are focused on journalism, not news products.”

Pilhofer said that sites that simply put data into an easy-to-read, searchable, browseable format is not journalism. “Sometimes it works really well,” he said. “But without editorial decisions, without context and analysis, it’s not journaalism. It’s just vomiting data.”

Further, data should be useful, Pilhofer says. And it shouldn’t just be a search box with a “Go” button.

“Data is everywhere,” Pilhofer said. “You probably already have the information and expertise you need in the newsroom or on the Web site. You just need to utilize it.”

ISOJ 2008: Multimedia and Interactivity, from Knight Center on Vimeo.