How to Use Interactive Time Lines in Breaking News & Ongoing Stories

Some news organizations, such as The Seattle Times, The Chicago Sun-Times and The Honolulu Star-Bulletin, have started creating interactive time lines to add context to stories, show the breadth of their reporting, and help people better understand the news they’re consuming.

While time lines work well for contextualizing ongoing news stories, they’re also effective for breaking news crime stories and for packaging content from a variety of sources.

To see how one of these interactive tools works, I created a Dipity time line showing Romenesko’s coverage of the layoffs and budget cuts in newsrooms since July 2007.

It took me about three hours to look through the related posts and enter the necessary information — the title of each post, a brief description of it, the time and date it was published and, when applicable, the location where it took place. It was easy to create, but a bit tedious and time-consuming, given all of the information I included. If I’d had more time, I would have made it more visually appealing by adding additional photos.

Because I created just one time line, I was able to use the service for free. (Users can create up to three Dipity time lines for free. After that, they have to pay for the service.)

Check it out:


Here’s how some other journalists have used Dipity time lines.

To add context and historical background to a story

Craig Gima, assistant city editor and reporter at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, recently created a Dipity time line to help illustrate an ongoing crime story involving the murder of a local toddler. Gima, who embedded the time line in the Star-Bulletin’s stories about the crime, said he created it to help give readers context — particularly those who hadn’t been following the paper’s coverage of the story for the past two years.

“Dipity is a way for people who want that extra detail to be able to explore the story,” Gima said via e-mail. “I think it takes some effort on the part of the reader to actually get into the extra information available. But in some ways, that’s the point. You can give the reader an interactive experience, if they desire.”

By clicking on the tabs above the time line, users can choose how they want to see the information presented. They can look at it, for instance, as a horizontal time line, as a vertical list or as an interactive “flipbook.” Dipity time lines with a lot of information can appear cluttered, so it sometimes helps to vary the way the information is displayed.

Users can also click on the “Map” tab to see where the stories on the time line have taken place. When creating the layoff/buyout time line, for instance, I geotagged the information so that viewers could see where the layoffs and buyouts are happening nationwide.

Pull in information from other sources to make your site a one-stop shop for news about a particular topic

The Chicago Sun-Times’ Dipity time line, which former online producer Mark Bieganski created leading up to the 2008 presidential elections, features election-related RSS feeds from the Sun-Times, Msnbc.com, The Huffington Post, Politico, CNN, Twitter and YouTube. Though the Sun-Times no longer updates it, the time line continues to pull in relevant (and occasionally some irrelevant) stories.

Bieganski said the Sun-Times published the time line on election night in hopes that it would act as a destination page for election-related news.

“We branded it as a one-stop shop for all things having to do with Barack Obama and John McCain,” said Bieganski, now a senior producer at Time Out Chicago. “We were able to set up the landing page and not have to touch anything. With limited manpower and so much going on, it was a great tool to present a different way for our users to get news.”

Showcase the breadth of your reporting

Wendy Norris, former state editor at the Colorado Independent and now editor and publisher of the Western Citizen, used Dipity last year to gather all of the Independent’s stories on Ted Haggard, the New Life Church’s founding pastor who was involved in drug and sex scandals.

“I needed to find a way to update this ever-morphing story … and extend the shelf life of our reporting,” Norris said by phone. “It seemed to make sense for me to use a time line to visually portray this very convoluted story that is now three years in the making.”

Presenting the information chronologically helped others in the newsroom better understand Haggard’s life story. “The time line,” Norris said, “was an extremely helpful tool for our reporters who were covering different aspects of this story and needed to get up to speed quickly on the rapidly evolving events.”

Norris no longer updates the time line, but it still gets viewed. When I Googled “Ted Haggard” recently, the time line was the third entry that appeared out of more than 340,000 entries.

Visually portray the path of a breaking news story

Dipity’s CEO and co-founder, Derek Dukes, said he’s seen Dipity (short for “serendipity”) used in many breaking news situations. Dipity.com, which receives about 5 million unique visitors per month, often features time lines that people can follow as news breaks about current events, such as the earthquake in Chile or the Toyota recalls.

“One of the first examples we had of Dipity being relevant was during the Mumbai attacks. We were quickly able to find really relevant sources and pull all of those sources into one place,” Dukes said in a phone interview. “One of the things we hope will happen when someone uses Dipity is that serendipity will occur as they find or discover something new or unexpected related to the topic they are exploring.”

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The Seattle Times created a Dipity time line last December to accompany its breaking news stories about police shootings in Lakewood, Wa. The time line, which features videos and articles, begins with the police shootings and ends with the shooting of the suspect three days later.

Cory Haik, assistant managing editor of seattletimes.com, said she’s always looking for new Web tools and trying to figure out which ones work best for which story. Interactive time lines work well for breaking news stories, she said, but they shouldn’t be limited to just one type of story. She noted that one of the main values of Dipity is that it keeps content from getting buried.

“When you manage a site with millions of pages, you have so much content it’s crazy,” Haik said by phone. “That’s our problem. We have too much. We have all of these places to push content, but where should we be pushing what? Dipity is one of the tools that can help us figure this out.”

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