December 23, 2015

I saw the future of the news industry in a pixelated battle between George W. Bush and Hulk Hogan.

The vulgar, 16-bit “Emogame: The Anti-Bush Game” pitted characters like He-Man, Mr. T and emo music heartthrob Chris Carrabba against Bush-era politicians in a war to elect John Kerry. Nestled between skirmishes with anthropomorphic warpigs and former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft were surprisingly deep (and, in hindsight, likely biased) explanatory scenes about budget debts and Iraq War casualties.

Even as a politically-minded high school senior, I couldn’t be bothered to read The New York Times or The Washington Post. But my keyboard’s arrows were worn off from playing Emogame, which was not created a news organization but by an artist named Jason Oda.

That was 2004. Eleven years later, the news industry still hasn’t cracked the kind of magic that made a high schooler engage with national politics for hours.

And it’s getting harder to compete. From cats afraid of cucumbers to that darn dress (it was blue and black), there’s so much more vying for our attentions on the Internet than there was in 2004.

As developers and reporters finally started collaborating in the early 2010s, news organizations like the The New York Times started exploring more immersive online experiences in earnest with larger projects like “Snow Fall” and the dialect quiz. These projects were critically appraised and massively popular (the quiz alone received 21 million pageviews) but require a heavy lift to pull off again. Quartz’s Kevin Delaney summed up the biggest problem with these projects when he said he’d “rather have a Snow Fall builder than a Snow Fall.”

So if they aren’t viable, especially for the smaller organizations out there, what’s next? From Facebook’s Instant Articles to Google’s AMP to Apple News, it seems we’re increasingly betting on text (plus videos and static images) on pages with faster load times. There are a thousand unresolved questions about whether the news industry is ceding too much control to Google, Facebook and Apple but, as Alexis Lloyd from the Times’ R&D lab points out, we should be actually be asking whether we should keep pursuing the article as a format:

[B]oth Facebook and Apple, who arguably have a huge amount of power to shape what the future of news looks like, have chosen to focus on a future that takes the shape of an article. The form and structure of how news is distributed hasn’t been questioned, even though that form was largely developed in response to the constraints of print (and early web) media.

Journalists are fighting a war for attention with the rest of the Internet. If articles are our artillery, we’re going to lose.

Even if Instant Articles, AMP and the like send pageviews skyrocketing and save the news industry, some stories are always going to be better told in more immersive formats. Minimalism has its place, but forgoing the nearly boundless limits of digital to chase a second or two of load time sounds like backward thinking.

So what the news industry needs are tools that:

  • Explore new storytelling formats
  • Are templatable and reusable
  • Are easy to learn (because most organizations don’t have a Snow Fall-sized team)
  • Are free or low-cost (because most news organizations are lean)

Google, Facebook and Apple can build tools that add some of this functionality into their platforms, or we can use the great ones that already exist.

This year, a piece from a tiny newspaper that used Northwestern University Knight Lab’s TimelineJS tool won a Pulitzer. That publication’s editor specifically cited TimelineJS in his letter to Pulitzer judges. The year before, the Denver Post won a Pulitzer for an article about the Aurora theater shootings that also leveraged TimelineJS.

Knight Lab’s suite of tools, which also include an interactive map builder, a tool to underlay audio behind text, and a slider to compare two similar images, are all incredibly efficient tools built to help journalists tell stories with richer context. They’re remarkably easy to use.

And they’re not the only ones out there.

Need help building graphics for articles or to make your stories more shareable? Try Canva, Lunchbox or Pablo. Unsatisfied with your phone’s native video editing software? Download Videoshop. Having a hard time uncovering data for your political stories? The Sunlight Foundation has a massive suite of tools to help.

News organizations will probably never create immersive experiences like Emogame with any regularity, but free and cheap tools allow us to tell stories better and with more complexity. Keep trying them. We can’t win this within the constraints of an article.

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Ren LaForme is the Managing Editor of He was previously Poynter's digital tools reporter, chronicling tools and technology for journalists, and a producer for…
Ren LaForme

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