Friday, January 28, 2011

One of my favorite moments in the morning is opening the front page of the New York Times website. It's a morning ritual and a rite of passage into the new day. But what's even better is when I see the words "interactive feature," "multimedia" or "graphic." In my early morning haze, before the coffee has taken full effect, these words are lighthouses for my foggy morning brain. They signal a bit of news represented through the lens of a different medium, more easily digested in the morning hours as compared to a full-length text article. This is not to say that interactive or multimedia graphics are an "easier" form of news digestion, which can be had on a number of other news outlets. Instead, the NYT's visual media are a means of representing the news information in a way that only a graphic could make clear or compelling. This, in fact, is better than coffee at bringing me out of the morning fog.

I don't know much about how the Times structures its multimedia graphics department, or how news items are selected for graphic representation. I'm sure I could find this out if I did some digging (I might need a graphic to help me with that, too). But there are two recent examples of NYT graphics that I think best represent the value of what they do. On January 8, one year after the earthquake in Haiti, the NYT released an interactive graphic showing the growth of new squatter towns, to be seen as both a sign of the area's destruction as well as the birth of new forms of settlement. The viewer can navigate through several satellite images comparing settlement patterns before and after the earthquake, as well as a present satellite view one year later.

In the second interactive graphic, the NYT represent America's most recent demographic population patterns (culled from the 2010 Census data) in a zoom/pan-able GoogleMaps-like format. I haven't spent so much time on a single graphic web interface since the original GoogleMaps was released in 2005. The clustering of demographic groups is nothing new, but the thoroughness of the data and its immediate accessibility is an accomplishment. This graphic in particular had friends sending me interesting finds for over a week ("this parcel 100% latino!," "race totally obeys the grid in Chicago!").

It's interesting to note that both of these examples are maps - a graphic that I seem to be biased towards, as well as a medium that the NYT interactive department handles especially well. Of course, there are many other examples that are equally compelling, such as the videos and slideshow-style photography series. But for me, nothing pumps the mental caffeine as much as the maps - especially when the map is about caffeine itself.


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