News Leadership 3.0

July 01, 2008

Teamwork and technology in Des Moines

Tornado map shows power
of newsroom’s new players

After a tornado blew away the southern third of Parkersburg, Iowa, www.DesMoinesRegister.com published an amazing interactive map that led the reader house-by-house through photos, videos and text illustrating the massive disaster.

After I discovered the map last week (thanks to Al Tompkins at Poynter Online), I wanted to learn more about how the staff created the map and whether the Information Center structure that Gannett newsrooms implemented last year played a role in developing such an engaging and effective presentation.

I got in touch with Kelli Morris, a graphic artist in Des Moines who played a lead role in developing the tornado map. Her account may be instructive for newsrooms that seek new structures and practices that will expand the capacity of their staffs across digital platforms. Here’s Morris’ account:

First, the newsroom data department (created under the Information Center model) pulled a list of all the property owners in the town and those were matched with a satellite map of the town. The staff also developed a spreadsheet for the data that would be collected. “This helped to make sure everyone was on the same page heading in and knew the format of the information needed.”

Next, two reporters and a graphic artist headed to Parkersburg, about 110 miles away from Des Moines. The reporters focused on finding residents to get their stories. The artist focused on making “after” photos and getting stories when possible.

“Back in the office, the graphics department began to assemble the map - drawing in the parcel divisions by hand and seeking out a aerial image of the town as a whole after the tornado. Meanwhile, the data department had scraped the county assessor’s site for the basics for each property and began to build the database. A dummy data file was provided to the artist so he could proceed in the programming before the on-site artist returned from the town.” “Before” photos also were pulled from the assessor’s site and cataloged into the database.

When the reporters and artist returned from Parkersburg, they added information to the spreadsheet, including the stories from the residents, damage levels, and photo ID numbers. The data department then compiled the spreadsheets into one html feed that could be drawn into the multi-layered Flash graphic built by the graphics department.

The map was published two weeks after the May 25 tornado. The staff has kept it up to date with information from daily followup coverage and e-mails from readers and residents about their experiences during and after the tornado.

“Overall we’ve had very good response to the map,” Morris said in an e-mail. “We’ve received more than two dozen stories from residents or their families or volunteers who helped clean-up. Some have even asked for a way to preserve the site as a keepsake, saying that the town will never be the same again. Additionally, we’ve received several comments from folks in the industry, who have appreciated in particular the way that the video, photos and story-telling all work together.”

By the end of June, the map had generated nearly 40,000 hits and was the third most popular database on the site for the month, right behind a state salaries database and a map of flooding across Iowa. Update: Morris reports that the map got 42,000 hits by the end of June, which makes it the third most popular interactive graphic the newsroom has produced.

Such smart interactives can significantly increase user time on site. “In general, these types of interactive maps usually provide fewer page views and much higher time spent on page, because they take more commitment to explore than the other quick-hit searchable databases. True in this case as well - we’re seeing times of four minutes per visit, which is very, very good, ” Morris said.

As in many newsrooms, the rise of digital has created a larger place at the table for graphic artists in Des Moines. “We’ve gone from a department that produced secondary graphics and centerpiece illustrations to one that is suggesting and writing its own stories, driving online traffic to interactive graphics, and essential in showing readers the story, rather than just telling them,” Morris said. “Much of this has been driven by the ability to take advantage of technology - satellite images, Flash interactive graphics and the database work. Editors frequently approach our graphics staff looking for different angles to tell a 1A story. And many times, the artists are included in project brainstorming sessions in earlier stages due to our unique understanding of what we can do with graphics for both print and online.”

It’s another illustration of how mastery of emerging technologies increasingly sits side-by-side with traditional skills in effective news organizations. Are you encouraging that kind of growth in your newsroom staff? Please describe your efforts in the comments.

 

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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