Flash journalism: Professional practice today

Mindy McAdams is the author of “Flash Journalism: How to Create Multimedia News Packages” (Focal Press, 2005).

Want to put multimedia content on the Web? You’ll quickly find out that the free Flash player and the Flash authoring application top the list of solutions at most online news organizations.

“[Flash] allows us to put together audio, video, still pictures and text in a single format and put it out as an executable file. There’s not much else that really allows us to do that across platforms,” said Jim Ray, a multimedia producer on the broadband team at MSNBC.com.

“It provides a way to distribute a variety of media without having to download different programs. It’s the only program that can do it all,” said Jen Friedberg, a staff photographer at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

“For producing graphics online, it’s the tool of choice,” said Juan Thomassie, a senior designer at USAToday.com.

The Singular Plug-in Solution

Flash addresses two key needs in online journalism: integrating multiple media (content), and reaching the widest possible audience (compatibility). Other browser plug-ins allow online users to watch video or listen to music, but the Flash player has the advantage of working well on both Windows and Mac platforms, in multiple Web browsers, and without popping up branded or unpredictable players outside the browser window.

“Flash is the only thing that brings everything together,” said Ray Villalobos, director of multimedia for Mega Communications and former senior interactive producer for the Orlando Sentinel. “The penetration of the Flash plug-in allows me to assume people will have some version of the plug-in.”

In June 2005, more than 93 percent of Web users in North America, Europe and Asia had a video-capable version of the Flash player already installed, according to a study sponsored by Macromedia.

But beyond the utility of Flash, what’s more interesting is what journalists are actually doing with it.

Putting the User into the Story

José Márquez, a producer at KQED Interactive in San Francisco, creates online animations to explain California’s political issues. He feels optimistic about the potential of Flash for journalism.

“It absolutely taps into what a computer can do that TV, the radio and newspapers can’t do: Allow the user to determine what they’re interested in, as well as to place them within the polemic of the story,” Márquez said.

Users appreciate having the ability to choose, according to Mega Communications’ Villalobos. “The things we get the most traffic out of is when the users get to decide what they’re going to see,” he said. “You can’t do that on TV. You can’t do it in print. Online is the only place where you can redefine how stories are told.”

Both Villalobos and Márquez talked about tapping into their experiences as video game players. Designing an online story is “more like playing or writing a game,” Villalobos said. “You can have a completely different experience every time you play the game. That’s what makes the Web exciting. People like the infinity the Web provides.”

Users’ active engagement distinguishes online from other media. “Every medium has a type of project that’s perfect for it. Print lends itself to a good linear story. Movies can have a flashback at the beginning and then bring you forward to the present. Online is really the only medium where the users define their experience by their actions,” Villalobos said.

Márquez has a lot of freedom for experimenting in his current position, in which he produces interactive graphics for the companion website to a public affairs news magazine TV series, California Connected.

“I’m just beginning to figure out some way to create an environment that’s welcoming, surprising, engaging, human and also humane,” Márquez said. “An environment in which people can actually learn something about themselves. That is the role of a journalist — to tell a story so that the listener can learn something about him- or herself.”

Alison Cornyn, director of Picture Projects, said her studio’s online work aims to create spaces where people can both understand things in new ways and share ideas with others.

“In time, I think more organizations will be thinking about ways to attract audiences and create ways for them to participate. Not just to chat, but to change things. News organizations may not want to be part of that, but audiences do want that,” she said.

“Flash doesn’t provide in and of itself a way to be participatory, but you can use Flash and other programs to bring that about,” Cornyn said.

Naka Nathaniel, a multimedia producer for The New York Times, said he considers multimedia journalism to be “much more intimate” than other journalism. “That’s probably why many people get into journalism in the first place — to try to make a difference. To really make a connection, whatever the story happens to be,” he said.

Because of the intimacy of “the way the technology works — just you and your keyboard and your mouse,” he said, “you [the user] really feel for these people. You want to help them. At the end, we’re able to provide a pathway for you to follow. You can contact an aid organization, or contribute. It’s a step beyond newspapers, television, magazines. That’s one thing Flash allows us to do — pull everything together neatly into a circle.”

An Era of Experimentation

Jen Friedberg, a staff photographer at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, said her first Flash project took about three months to complete. “I didn’t know Flash. I didn’t know Pro Tools. I didn’t know how to use the MiniDisc recorder. I had to go buy the MiniDisc recorder. It was a lot of trial and error,” she said.

“So I finally got that one up [online], and my editor said, yeah, that’s cool. But it took you three months. And everyone else [on the photo staff] said, that was too much work. We’re never going to do that!”

That was three years ago. During this past summer, most of the photographers who work with Friedberg have started gathering and editing their own audio. No one forced them. It’s something they’ve decided they want to do.

“Captions get cut down or rewritten. That’s been a source of long-term frustration (for photographers),” Friedberg said. “People like the audio because they finally get to tell what’s really going on in the photo. The majority of photographers here really want to get that information out, and they are frustrated by not being able to.”

She prefers the audio accompanying an online photo story to feature the voices of people in the photo, not the photographer or a reporter. “That sends me into a rage, when the reporter talks for the people,” Friedberg said. “It makes me think some slacker didn’t get his audio in the field and they’re trying to cover it up.”

New York Times multimedia producer Naka Nathaniel pointed out that sometimes the circumstances in the field prevent him from gathering audio. “In North Korea, they seized all my gear,” he said. Except for two cases where military officers wanted to be videotaped, Nathaniel was limited to taking covert shots with a small digital still camera.

“I walked away with only a fifth of the art that I normally have because of the limitations placed on us there,” Nathaniel said.

The resulting story looks quite different from many of the collaborations between Nathaniel and Nicholas Kristof, an Op-Ed columnist for the Times. Lacking in visual material, Nathaniel resorted to “documentary tricks” such as zooming in on headlines from newspaper clippings to help move the story forward.

“That’s not my preferred way,” he said. “But the bigger picture is, you don’t have to limit yourself. You can find what’s appropriate for the story.”

Nathaniel’s documentary techniques will look familiar to most people. There are other people out there, like KQED’s Márquez and his colleague Marc Phu, who try to tell stories with Flash in a way that’s not comparable to any traditional journalistic style. “I don’t think that what I do is considered to be journalism,” Márquez said. “But I believe that in five to 10 years’ time, it will obvious to people, to people younger than us, that what we are doing is journalism.”

The work of people such as photographer Friedberg may be more recognizable as journalism, but on reflection, it’s not exactly like anything that exists outside the digital realm.

“Multimedia is its own entity,” Friedberg said. “It takes the best out of documentary radio and the best out of documentary photography. Television doesn’t have the time to tell a long narrative. Newspapers don’t have space anymore to run 60-inch stories, or more than one or two photos with a story. Flash allows us to bring all that back together and tell a story with more depth than in any other medium.”

The Best Tool for Certain Jobs

Theresa Riley, director of P.O.V. Interactive, has a staff of two working for her; together they create a companion website for each documentary aired on the PBS series “P.O.V.” When they agree that a site needs a Flash element, they hire freelancers to produce it.

For a recent documentary explaining how guns from New York end up in Kosovo, the team wanted to combine an animated map online with video clips from the film. “We didn’t want the annoyance of another pop-up window,” Riley said, and that’s why they decided to use Flash.

In the “P.O.V.” documentary “Speedo: A Demolition Derby Love Story,” the central character talks about modifying cars, and it’s not exactly clear what he does to them, Riley said.

“We thought his voice and personality were so compelling, and we wanted to do a photo gallery of his cars. We wanted him to tell his own story. That’s why we wanted to use Flash,” Riley said. “We really wanted to show big pictures of the cars, and with video, we wouldn’t have been able to do that.”

Mark Adams, a freelance multimedia producer and photographer based in Atlanta, said his desire to combine sound and motion with still photography goes back to Kodachrome. “I remember sitting around with friends and putting together a slideshow, popping chromes into the tray, turning on the stereo and hanging up a sheet in the living room,” he said. “I loved that immersion with all your senses.”

Reproducing that experience in Flash can be a challenge. “It’s really hard to integrate it really well,” Adams said. “It’s easy to put too much in there and overwhelm folks.”

The challenge must be faced, though, according to Jim Ray, a multimedia producer at MSNBC.com.

“If you haven’t started to think beyond telling stories with photos and text, you’re walking into the tar pits,” Ray said.

Not Your Father’s Breaking News

The caveat about learning new skills and experimenting with new ways to tell stories is that you usually cannot do it with day-to-day headlines.

“We’re not out breaking Watergate,” Ray said. “It’s not the right medium for that. What we can do is take a complex issue and make it personal to a user who comes to our site and help them understand it better. We can provide a context and a different way to experience that story.”

KQED’s Márquez admitted that what he does is “certainly not investigative journalism. But I am taking facts — often very dry facts and statistics — and trying to turn those into a story that will motivate people to take action or to learn more.”

At many online news sites, text still dominates the home page — but the journalists who work with Flash have a different perspective.

“Animation has become part of the way we tell stories online. It’s an option we use to give more credibility and reality to the piece,” said Juan Thomassie, a senior designer at USAToday.com. “We’re always thinking about making the story animated if we can, and more interesting to the readers. I think it has changed the way we tell stories dramatically. You can’t just copy a news graphic and paste it on the Web page and expect it to engage the reader.”

Sometimes there’s just not enough time. Deadlines still dictate what’s possible.

“Ideally, early in the planning stages, before reporters and photographers are assigned to a story, we like to be involved at that point, to make sure the content gathering keeps our needs in mind,” Thomassie said. “If we don’t find out about it until the night before, we’re often not able to produce an interactive graphic.”

Animated graphics do have a place in breaking news, though. Alberto Cairo was in Madrid, creating infographics for the website of El Mundo, on March 11, 2004, when train bombs killed 191 people and wounded more than 1,500. While the news site had multiple millions of page views that day, “about 1 million” were solely for the infographics pages, he said.

What’s Coming Next?

Alberto Cairo spent five years working with animated infographics online at El Mundo. This past summer he moved to Chapel Hill, N.C., to teach multimedia journalism as an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina.

“For me, as an infographics designer, the capability the program has to integrate a database into infographics is very important,” Cairo said.

The appeal is not only that Flash can be used to display data clearly and compactly in graphical formats. The data can be pulled from the database into Flash dynamically. If the ActionScript allows it, the Flash package need not be revised. It can display new information as soon as it is added to the separate database.

“Flash will generate the pie chart or the bar chart automatically. It’s a very new world for us, all of us [who] have a print infographics background,” Cairo said. “It’s very demanding, but at the same time, it’s very gratifying. It lets you develop your skills as a designer in a very broad sense of the word.”

Alison Cornyn, director of Picture Projects, explained how the Sonic Memorial Project incorporates a database with the Flash-based Sonic Browser to allow users to explore a collection of audio recollections about the World Trade Center.

“The Sonic Browser makes the project much more special than it would be if it were just an online database,” Cornyn said.

Not everyone agrees that Flash makes a good partner for databases. Adrian Holovaty, an editor at washingtonpost.com and former lead developer for World Online, the Web companion of the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World, argued against using Flash in cases when users might want to link to specific segments of the package, or send a link in e-mail.

“Flash is good for things such as video that can’t be broken down into nuggets of information. But otherwise, information should be broken down,” Holovaty wrote in an instant-message conversation.

Information broken into discrete chunks can be linked to other chunks. “Linking is pretty fundamental. Every piece of information should be linkable,” Holovaty said.

After looking at The New York Times’s Flash map of the 2004 U.S. election results, Holovaty said it would be better if individual Web pages in that package were devoted, for example, to the 1964 Texas election results and to a state-by-state comparison of 1980 results. “We’re not talking about manual HTML pages, though — it would be all automated,” he said. A comparable example (without Flash) would be the chicagocrime.org site he developed.

“Flash is certainly appropriate in some cases, but my opinion is that if a small news organization is going to invest resources in the Web, it ought to invest more into databases and making data ‘smart’ than into one-off Flash projects,” Holovaty said.

No Software Is Perfect

Joe Weiss, an interactive producer at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., was one of the earliest adopters of Flash in journalism, but that doesn’t mean he’s unequivocal about it.

“Flash is a bridge technology for me, and while I can praise its limitations the way an artist would praise the limitations of watercolor paintings, I dream (literally) of a better, more powerful tool,” Weiss wrote in e-mail.

“The limitations [of tools] always invite very creative solutions,” observed Alison Cornyn, director of Picture Projects. “I don’t think of them as frustrations. I think about how we can do what we need and how we can push it. Let some of the limitations create new ways of solving the problem.”

“I view Flash as just another tool in your bag when you’re trying to tell a story,” Mark Adams said. “Would the story benefit from being told with the help of Flash? Not all stories will.”

Before Flash reached its current level of utility, “we used other software, other means, [such as] JavaScript rollovers and animated GIFs,” said Juan Thomassie, of USAToday.com. “We all still use Photoshop. We all still use FreeHand or Illustrator. But it always seems to come down to Flash when it comes to putting it on the Web.”

Another solution for multimedia might emerge and displace Flash, just as Flash displaced some previous tools and methods. The Web never stands still for long.

“With all the changes we’ve seen in just the past six years, it wouldn’t surprise me if something else came along,” Thomassie said. “But they would have some serious catching up to do. With each year and each version of Flash, it becomes harder for anyone else to catch up.”


Interactive Narratives

Joe Weiss’s blog

Work by Naka Nathaniel for The New York Times

Multimedia from the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram

chicagocrime.org, a non-profit browsable database developed by Adrian Holovaty

California Connected interactives

Jen Friedberg’s portfolio site

Ray Villalobos’s online portfolio

Mark Adams’s portfolio site

Picture Projects

P.O.V. Home

P.O.V.’s Dying in America: A Chronology

P.O.V.’s Speedo: A Demolition Derby Love Story photo gallery

Interactive graphics from elmundo.es

Interactive media from USAToday.com

Multimedia from MSNBC.com

Digital Storytelling, a panel session including Theresa Riley, Director, P.O.V. Interactive