Around the world, newspapers are boldly experimenting with online infographics — and they're making money. So why aren't papers in Canada following suit? Claire Prime looks into this in the latest issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

Around the world, newspapers are boldly experimenting with online infographics — and they're making money. So why aren't papers in Canada following suit? Claire Prime looks into this in the latest issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

 

Many Canadian newspapers are redefining themselves as web-first publications. They’re also facing the challenge of having to engage an increasingly distracted readership with no particular brand loyalty. News sites have tried a few new things, like podcasts and slideshows, to encourage traffic, but there’s one trend that Canadian papers aren’t so willing to try.

While newspapers such as The Globe and Mail and the National Post have talented graphic artists who publish colourful infographics in print, most newspapers in Canada don’t take advantage of the possibilities that graphics offer online. In the U.S., Europe and Latin America, interactive and animated infographics are driving hits and that traffic is driving up advertising. Even very simple and cheap — or free — infographics are popular. So why do Canadian newspapers balk at something that could be so easily implemented? — C.P.

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Hundreds of rings cover a satellite image of Japan’s eastern coast on The New York Times website. The largest ring, which looms over the curve in the land near the city of Fukushima, shows a 9.0 magnitude on the Richter scale; it represents the earthquake that shook the country and caused the devastating tsunami that flooded coastal cities and towns and set off a national nuclear crisis. Since March 11, Japan has been rattled by hundreds of aftershocks and has had to issue more tsunami warnings to coastal regions, months after the fact. One aftershock, at a magnitude of 7.1, hit on April 7, nearly a month after the initial quake. Mousing over the rings on the map highlights each quake, displaying its date and magnitude.

This interactive graphic was part of a multi-layered online feature created by the Times that included animated diagrams, heat maps, interactive before and after images, videos and slideshows. The coverage captured the devastation of the disaster in a way that text could not.

Meanwhile, The Globe and Mail and the National Post created colourful but flat graphics—maps with the locations of the Fukushima power plant and the fault line (where the tectonic plates shift), for example. The Toronto Star created a timeline and used a Google map to track the location of stories from the quake’s aftermath. In comparison to what the Times offered on its website, where users could interact with and explore the information, the graphics at some of Canada’s largest papers functioned essentially as diagrams—the same role they’ve been playing for decades and in the same two-dimensional form.

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Major news organizations in the United States and overseas are using online infographics to bring in huge traffic and advertising dollars. But Canadian papers have not caught on to the trend, and they’re foregoing readers—why go to a website with dull graphs and timelines when the same information is available in a more engaging and dynamic form elsewhere? Our newspapers are dying and we’re still not taking full advantage of the possibilities graphics offer. Meanwhile, publications across the border are reinventing the news online, driving traffic and making money—and it’s helping them survive.

Infographics include maps, charts and graphs, which means they’ve been around since long before Gutenberg’s printing press. In 1702, Britain’s Daily Courant published what is believed to be the first infographic in a daily newspaper: a diagram of Britain’s attempted occupation of the Bay of Cádiz in Spain.

In the past, infographics tended to work as a complement to text, but today, with advances in software and with their growing popularity, they frequently stand alone. The Globe and Post sometimes publish full pages, or even double-page spreads, of graphics, without a supporting article. One of the maps of the disaster in Japan published by the Post took up a full page of the paper’s front section and was accompanied by eight photos of the devastation along with the latest statistics on the missing and dead.

Infographics also grew alongside data journalism: reporting based in numbers, statistics, information gathered via freedom-of-information requests or data pulled from websites or documents. Here, graphics are a way to make sense of information, especially numbers, more than a way to further storytelling.

Some print journalists fear that the success of infographics is a symptom of waning attention spans, rather than true innovation in the practice. But David Pratt, a designer at the Globe, says graphics cater to the way people naturally consume information. Citing an eye-tracking study done by the Poynter Institute, he says that people don’t actually read print articles from beginning to end; our eyes skip and jump, and we tend to see pictures before text.

 

This story was originally published in the Winter 2012 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism. To read the full article, check out their website