October 28, 2013

Scroll down the page on “A Game of Shark and Minnow,” Jeff Himmelman’s New York Times Magazine story about a disputed region in the South China Sea, and you may notice something the story doesn’t ask you to do: Stop.

That was the whole idea, Times Associate Managing Editor Steven Duenes, who directs the Times’ graphics, says in a phone call with Poynter. The crew that worked the most on the presentation — Mike Bostock, Shan Carter, Xaquín G.V. and Nancy Donaldson — were trying to marry Himmelman’s story and Ashley Gilbertson’s photographs and videos in a way that felt “more like what the normal experience of the Web is: The users’ ability to scroll through a a series of images, to have the images do the explanatory work.”

You’re not stopping for three minutes to watch a video, Duenes said. Gilbertson’s animated clips — not GIFs, he said — aren’t videos “where you hit play and sit back and watch. What we’re hoping to do is keep people in an active mode. These are videos that you read and you scroll through.” Think of them as “moving stills,” Duenes said.

That desire to keep people scrolling is why the tablet version of the story doesn’t have the videos, Duenes said. Readers would have to hit “play,” which isn’t “as smooth an experience. We thought the still photographs are powerful enough.”

“It’s not totally ideal,” he said of the varying experiences. “It would be great to have the same experience everywhere, because we do look at the desktop experience as the one that’s probably the best.”

It is. Some videos loop. Others help you drill down into the story. On a desktop screen, the “camera” rises from an aerial view of the region to a wider map that shows contested boundaries. Water burbles peacefully on either side of a rusting, grounded ship that Filipino troops occupy, trying to keep an eye on Chinese activity. Rain from a storm pours through the ship’s decks into the interior, where a rooster tries to keep dry.

Gilbertson first went to the region in January, then returned with Himmelman in August, Duenes said. He hesitated to say how much time the project took — “These are not discrete projects where you have some number of people working on one of them.” Different teams swooped in and out of “Shark and Minnow” as other projects — Ellen Barry’s story about a drive from St. Petersburg to Moscow, Elisabeth Rosenthal’s story about the cost of asthma medications — consumed portions of design and graphics people’s workdays.

Rosenthal’s story resembles the article page the Times unveiled earlier this year. “We’ll get closer to that soon, and in the meantime this kind of story is serving as the template for now,” he said of “Sharks.”

Ideas for which stories get a graphics-intensive treatment are coming from all over the newsroom. A leadership group from across the visual departments helps coordinate efforts. “I think there’s a growing awareness in the newsroom about these kind of projects,” he said. The publication’s departments are getting better at choosing stories that “have real visual potential.”

If “Shark and Minnow” represents a step forward, it’s in its use of scrolling imagery. Readers never have to adjust their behavior to read it. “All they have to do is continue scrolling and reading and looking and the story should unfold for them,” Duenes said.

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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City…
Andrew Beaujon

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