June 15, 2017

Timelines are a great way to make your stories visual, and there are several tools to help you build them. This week, we explore a free, easy way to build beautiful, interactive timelines.

Hare: Hey! So I’ve been using Grammarly and loving it (minus the way it harasses me about Oxford commas, which it’s intent on doing.) What’s our tool this week?

LaForme: This week’s tool won’t harass you at all. Promise. It’s an interactive timeline builder that I hear has been doing pretty well in the education world and has a bunch of great uses in journalism. It’s called Sutori.

Hare: Cool! I’ve used Timeline JS a few times, and it seems to work well. How does Sutori work?

LaForme: I love Timeline JS and show people how to use it all the time. But it’s built using spreadsheets, and I’ve seen that throw a lot of people off. Sutori is a little bit less complicated.

Using the built-in tools, you just sort of drag and drop little boxes of content. Unlike Timeline, which is almost like a slider, Sutori is a vertical timeline that stretches the length of your screen, or at least until the timeline is over.

An example of Sutori's interface.

An example of Sutori’s interface.

desktop. The content cards — I’m not sure that’s the official name for them but that’s what I’ll call them — can appear on both sides of the timeline on desktop. On mobile, they collapse to one side.

And they’re not hard at all to build. I built a little timeline about my life when I was testing it out the other day. I got from birth to high school with about a dozen or so cards of content in about five minutes. It’s probably easier to use than most folks’ CMSes.

One thing I really love is that Sutori gives you a lot of variety in terms of what you can put into the content cards. Obviously, there’s text and photos, but you can also do simple quizzes, a little forum for users, drag-and-drop games, audio, video and some other interesting stuff. It’s surprisingly robust for how simple it all looks.

Hare: OK, that’s very cool. I was just exploring their site and found this timeline on breakfasts around the world. It seems like timeline may be a constrictive name for it. Is this really a way to do visual presentations?

LaForme: Absolutely. It’s like a vertical presentation builder, if that makes sense.

And that’s actually my biggest complaint about it. The “timeline” itself is just a line with no numbers or grid marks. If you’re trying to show dates, you have to add a text block with the date or else it won’t appear on the line. And you have to manually space the cards on the line. You can’t, for example, go year by year and expect it to space the cards out equally on the line. Seems sort of weird for a timeline tool to not account for actual time to me.

And yet, it’s just so easy, and the outcome is great.

Hare: Yeah, I might trade spreadsheets for a little more work and spacing. What else do you like about it?

LaForme: I haven’t had a chance to test it yet, but Sutori makes a big deal out of how it can be used collaboratively. You can share your Sutori with other specific users and work on building a timeline together. I guess that’d be pretty important to the education world, if you’ve got students working on presentations together and things like that.

I also like — and this may be a turnoff for some news organizations out there — that you can click a button to copy someone else’s Sutori and then edit it yourself. I find that it’s a really helpful functionality when you’re trying to learn a tool, not that this one is hard to learn.

Hare: I can see how that would make some journalists twitch a bit. Anything else you don’t like about it?

LaForme: It’d be great to have a little more flexibility with design. It seems like you’re limited to their fonts, colors and design choices. I know there are some web folks out there who want everything on the site to be visually aligned.

Hare: I should have asked this before, but this is free right? Any limits on how you can use it?

LaForme: It’s free! It doesn’t even seem like they have a premium version, so you get all the features straight off the bat. There don’t seem to be any usage limits.

As we were chatting, I stumbled onto this BBC story about the U.S. National Parks turning 100 years old. Pretty good stuff, and I’m sure a much better presentation for this type of story than text would be.

Hare: You are a multitasking wunderkind.

LaForme: I have a millennial’s attention span, for sure.

Hare: Are you still collecting people’s favorite grammar editing tools?

LaForme: Absolutely! I heard from a few people who said that the best “tool” for editing is knowledge and experience, which…fine. But we’re all humans, right? We make mistakes.

Someone did say that Hemingway, which I mentioned, was better for catching winding sentences and passive voice. I’ll give it a try and see what types of things it catches in my writing. I welcome more feedback on this one.

Hare: Send Ren your ideas! He’ll check them out while doing 20 other equally cool things!

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of articles that highlight digital tools for journalists. You can read the others here. Got a tool we should talk about? Let Ren know!

Learn more about journalism tools with Try This! — Tools for Journalism. Try This! is powered by Google News Lab. It is also supported by the American Press Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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