Engaging the News: Visual Journalism and Innovation
Imagine a conversation with a 100-year-old woman. You ask her what she
thought of when she first heard about automobiles as a child. She suddenly
laughs and explains, "I first thought it was the funniest thing—how could
everyone have their own train?"
When she first heard of cars as a new technology, she could not understand
that they offered personal, flexible, innovative, and empowering movement
from one point to another that trains cannot supply. She also could not
anticipate that automobiles isolate people by consumer ideals conveyed in
advertising, road conventions, windows, and even the radio, and pollution.
Innovations always create both new paradigms and problems.
People tend to evaluate and anticipate technology based on previous
experiences—cars must be like trains. In the same way, we think of new
media as extensions of the familiar—newspapers, radio, and television. But
the future of mass communication may have little to do with our
understanding of our past or present uses of media. Nevertheless, we are
stuck for the moment thinking about how news will be communicated in the
future with our traditional print and screen media blinders.
Traditional news offers a daily, edited diary of events that producers
determine to be of the most interest and importance to the most people. In
other words, news is a combination of what news producers say it is and
what the most vocal news consumers say they want. If news producers
continually provide news that is not needed or desired, consumers lose
interest and subscription rates and ratings decline—a situation not unlike
what is currently happening with many media entities.
News media managers that want to improve their rates and ratings have tried
to incorporate controversial innovations—increased use of images and
graphics, market-driven commercially based stories, live-action set-ups,
special effects learned from motion picture technologies, and so on. They
have focused on what people want, sometimes to the detriment of what they
But these commercially driven innovations are still based on a traditional
model of stories and story telling—the "one-to-many" model of mass
communication in which news is "shoved" to waiting, grateful, and passive
consumers. The flaw in this approach is that decisions are based on the
presumed generalized characteristics of a target audience (ideally people
with infinite resources and inclinations toward consumerism) and not the
true specific characteristics of individual consumers of news. Like train
travel, traditional news media seek to take the majority of consumers
somewhere close to where they would like to go. Traditional mass media
managers find it difficult to conceive of other models—one-to-one,
many-to-one, or even many-to-many-because these models are outside the
commercial paradigm they have carefully constructed over many years in
order to deliver a news product efficiently and inexpensively. Within the
commercial paradigm, traditional news media function with three goals in
mind—entertainment, persuasion, and information. As long as audiences are
content with this mix of traditional functions, there is no incentive to
innovate. And when a new technological innovation is discovered—the World
Wide Web, for example—there is no incentive to have it look and feel any
differently from traditional media. Cars are trains as on the "Autopia"
ride at Disneyland.
Now imagine someone 50 years from now asking what you thought of when you
first heard of the World Wide Web. Perhaps you will laugh because, "How
could everyone have their own newspaper or television station?"
The World Wide Web can be a tool that consumers can use to not only more
fully participate in their news choices, but can influence those choices as
well. And when people are given the ability and responsibility to construct
their news choices, the gap between producer and consumer closes until they
overlap—producers and consumers collaborate.
Innovations Through Visual Journalism
Almost all journalism institutions offer curricula based on an out-dated
forced choice of department-specific courses with little room for
individual needs or, for that matter, collaborative opportunities. Media
convergence makes it a necessity for administrators and instructors to
conceive of teaching new media applications, but also, new ways to
collaborate, and more importantly, news ways to tell traditional stories.
Students need to learn how to work with others to produce stories that
engage themselves and their readers and viewers. Such collaborative
production methodologies have been established by those teaching in the
visual journalism field—combining still photography with video production
for World Wide Web presentations.
The World Wide Web combined with other forms of communication can be a tool
that students can use to not only more fully participate in their news
choices, but can influence those choices as well.
Social Constructivism and Diffusion of Innovation
The first step in designing news in new ways is to understand the dynamics
of human interaction when thinking of news consumers as news learners.
Social constructivism theory is employed to help explain why humans have a
need to engage with others outside their individual sphere of influence. As
we live our lives, social constructivism helps explain the interplay
between internalized and externalized experiences. We build knowledge about
our world and ourselves. As such, knowledge building is not a passive
activity. Individuals are builders of their own knowledge base and are
responsible for their own learning.
The Russian psychologist and philosopher Lev Vygotsky, who died at the age
of 38 in 1934, is associated with social constructivism within educational
contexts. According to Vygotsky and educational psychologists that followed
his teachings, learning should take place within the context that it is to
be applied. Social constructivism emphasizes a learner's culture and the
importance of cultural values within a larger societal context. As a
consequence, learners are encouraged to work in groups to understand real
life challenges and to receive rewards for the associations and the
conclusions they make. These educational lessons can be used when
considering news users as learners.
Social constructivism helps explain that in order for someone to learn from
the news, that person must engage the content within a context that they
can apply to their view of the world. For those in which this activity is
not familiar, encouragement is necessary and can be provided through
interactive formats. Otherwise, the news is not used.
"Diffusion of innovations" is a phrase popularized by Everett Rogers in the
book of the same name. Working from previous models and his own research,
Rogers characterized varying degrees of user participation of technologies
into five categories: laggards, late majority, early majority, early
adopters, and innovators. Rogers also identified specific characteristics
for each category. These descriptions can be employed to help identify
specific types of news consumers. When combined with the lessons learned
from social construction theory, diffusion theory can help target
innovative journalism presentations with users.
• Tend to be loners,
• Are alienated from others,
• Are usually suspicious of new ideas,
• Prefer long-established ways of being,
• Are not particularly social,
• Tend to be strict in their way of thinking,
• Would rather stay close to home, and
• Prefer to look to the past for answers.
These news consumers are not innovative and are uninformed. They are
passive and perhaps a bit lazy in their news choices. They prefer their
news to be obtained, if at all, through the easiest means possible. In
fact, "news" to them might be what they read in a supermarket tabloid or
any viewing of an afternoon confessional talk show. They are not likely to
reach a higher level of news consumption without educational, economic, and
Late Majority Members:
• Are cautious,
• Are careful,
• Are a little curious about new ideas,
• Are skeptical of new ideas,
• Are easily persuaded by others,
• Will try a new product, but only after friends pressure them to do so,
• Need to feel safe before they try a new idea or product, and
• Try a new idea only after most others have tried it before.
Members of this group prefer their news in easily understandable and
comfortable packages. Consequently, they prefer television news to print.
However, they might be persuaded to read a story in a newspaper or magazine
if a friend recommends it but chances are they won't switch their viewing
Early Majority Members:
• Tend to not take a leadership position within any organization,
• Tend to make careful, calculated decisions,
• Think a long time before they make a decision,
• Are often links between different groups of people,
• Almost always do something on purpose,
• Prefer to follow the lead of others,
• Consider themselves to be slightly above average, and
• Don't like to be the first to try something new, but don't like to be the
This type of news consumer is innovative, but uninformed. Their interest in
news is generally low. If they do consider news events presented by the
media, (usually because of proximity or potential direct impact) they are
not motivated to think of societal implications of a story, beyond
immediate self-impact. Their interests are fragmented, even parochial in
nature that revolve around single or localized issues like sports or an
approaching storm. Their main motivation, however, would be entertainment
• Are respected by their peers,
• Would rather travel far away than stay close to home,
• Usually have an opinion about something,
• Are considered leaders,
• Think of themselves as role models,
• Are well educated,
• Are well read, and
• Are successful at most anything they try.
Members of this level of news consumers are not innovative, but yet are
highly informed. And although it is probably true that they receive
personal benefits from such a high level of erudite contemplation (think of
Henry David Thoreau reading in Ralph Waldo Emerson's cabin in the woods),
in this context they are hampered personally by their lack of interest in
innovation pertaining to news presentations. They enjoy traditional media
presentations—The New York Times over USA Today. They probably do not own a
television set. They prefer literary magazines and books. Their interest is
in words over pictures and music over music videos. They respond most to
intellectual and insightful presentations that exemplify the highest
quality that traditional media have to offer.
• Can be a bit obsessed,
• Interested in new ideas,
• Never seem to get upset when experiencing a setback,
• Are comfortable with long-distance relationships,
• Can easily deal with technical matters,
• Like to take risks,
• Consider themselves daring, and
• Are comfortable when life is uncertain.
Finally, this group of news consumers is highly creative and informed. They
enjoy personalized, connected, interactive, intellectual, and contextual
presentations. They prefer to "grab" the news and make it their own.
Consequently, they are most likely to try convergent media presentations on
the World Wide Web.
Ideally, the content and experience of news should be of maximum benefit to
individuals and to society. It should therefore be the goal of educators
and news managers to elevate students and news consumers to the innovator
category. Engagers, those belonging to the innovator group, are most able
through their personality, inclination, and intellect to not only consume
news in innovative ways, but also engage others to join them in their
creative pursuit of information that is relevant and useful for all.
Technological Innovations for News Presentations
Recently, there have been several experiments designed by those interested
in the future of news that offer technological solutions for engaging a
wider audience in news presentations. These technologies can be divided
into four groups: user augmentation, database augmentation, game playing,
and trans-media simulated experiences.
With user augmentation presentations, Web users are allowed by the software
to input personal information, interests, and opinions in order to modify
what they see on the screen. Although it is possible to easily create
personalized news links using search engines and Web browser bookmarks,
software innovations make the task much easier and seamless for the user.
"Crayon" is a user-augmented newspaper for the Web (www.crayon.net). Users
can create their own online newspaper with a title, motto, and personalized
page layout, graphics, and links. The result is a series of news and
special interest Web links connected with the zip code and topics provided
by the user. However, because individual stories are not presented, the
custom publication does not have the look of a newspaper. Crayon is simply
a way to easily put a user's favorite Web links together on a Web page
A more sophisticated user-augmented newspaper was developed at the Media
Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In 1993 a prototype
online newspaper for MIT students called "FishWrap" (what you wrap
yesterday's news within) began publication. Students inputted personal
interests and other data and the program created a Web-based newspaper that
included hometown news, career choice information, entertainment options,
and so on. FishWrap has since ceased publication.
Another way of thinking about news presentations within a user augmentation
context is what Ellen Kampinsky, Shayne Bowman, and Chris Willis call
"Amazoning the News." The three show how "traditional news stories might be
treated in the design model of Amazon.com. We contend that a successful
news Web site is a platform that supports social interaction around the
story. These interactions are as important as the narrative, perhaps more,
because they are chosen by the readers." A Web site designed as a popular
bookstore might include "guide and direct presentations, reader rankings of
stories, reader comments as a part of coverage, links to similar stories,
and reader questions" (Figure 3).
Perhaps a variation of the Amazon concept is a combination of traditional
reporting by a journalist with input from online readers in the form of a
Web log or "blog." A blog is a kind of public bulletin board in which users
publish a personal journal on almost every topic imaginable. Ken Sands, an
"interactive editor" with The Spokesman-Review used the blog concept when
reporting on a high school basketball championship. Sands brought a laptop
with a wireless connection to the Internet to the basketball games and
filed his observations, images, and audio that readers could access on the
newspaper's blog site. Through email and instant messaging, readers added
their comments or asked questions that then became part of the sports
story. The newspaper's editor has plans in the future to use this same
technique on news stories. One idea is to change the way city council
meetings are traditionally reported by allowing online users to offer
real-time opinions while discussions take place.
Sara Elo's MIT master's thesis involved a database augmentation software
program was designed for the FishWrap online newspaper discussed earlier.
She called her program PLUM for "Peace, Love, and Understanding Machine,"
although it has since been given a computerese name of "Parallel Line with
Understanding Mission" by Walter Bender, director of MIT's News in the
Future research consortium. To determine trends within complex stories,
journalists have used computer databases, but such collections of data are
not used that often to automatically include contextual information to news
stories. PLUM used census data and the CIA World Factbook, among other
databases, to add comparisons between a local news user's community and
natural disaster anywhere in the world. For example, a student at MIT reads
her personalized FishWrap newspaper that details through a traditional wire
service news story a serious flood in China in which 200,000 homes were
underwater. With PLUM augmentation, the reader could also see comparative
facts in the form of news sidebars and informational graphics that explain
comparisons between the Chinese and her local community (Figure 4). In this
way, Elo hoped that readers would gain a greater understanding of the
complex economic, social and environmental issues between a local and
Another experimental program for the FishWrap newspaper developed at MIT is
called "Doppelganger." Doppelganger explains Bender, "enables your computer
to shadow you, get involved in all of the different things you do, and
deliver that information to your personal newspaper. My FishWrap knows
about my email, my calendar, and what I've been doing on the Web. And it
uses all that information to refine my user profile constantly. Say there's
an entry in my computer calendar that shows I'm traveling to Finland. Using
Doppelganger, FishWrap will smell that out and add a little news section on
Finland—local news and what's going on in Helsinki."
Finally, an innovative use of Macromedia's Flash and Shockwave software
programs combined with databases, allows newspaper Web site producers to
create high quality interactive presentations with moving images and audio
that download relatively quickly for Web users who have a free player
installed on their computer anywhere in the world. One of the first
utilities of this software for news presentations was with informational
graphics. CNN and USA Today Web sites offered readers interactive diagrams
related to news stories of 9-11, the "war on terrorism," "homefront"
activities, and the war with Iraq. One of the most striking interactive
presentations from the USA Today informational graphics collection
(www.usatoday.com/graphics/news/gra/gattack/index.htm) was a carefully
researched diagram that told several stories of those who managed to escape
from a World Trade Center tower after the aerial attacks. Users click on a
red triangle located on a building's floor to read the story of the person
located there that is a part of the newspaper's database (Figure 5).
The Institute for New Media Studies at the University of Minnesota
sponsored a workshop in 2001 called "Playing the News: Journalism,
Interactive Narrative and Games." Game creators, game players, journalists,
and professors invited by Director Nora Paul challenged traditional ways of
presenting news stories. They discussed and developed news stories within
arcade, quiz, and simulation game genres.
An example of an arcade game used for news education is provided on the Web
site of the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel. In one presentation, users can
try to pilot the complicated controls of an actual Civil War submarine
(www.sun-sentinel.com/graphics/entertainment). Although the playing of this
game may be considered on the same level as any arcade video game, users
are also guided to Web links in which information about the submarine's
inventor and the Civil War can be obtained (Figure 6).
News quiz games, as part of a larger story can again engage users to
understand more fully stories that traditional media presentations cannot.
CNN offers a quiz on Beatles trivia
(www.cnn.com/2000/SHOWBIZ/Music/09/04/beatles/index.html) and MSNBC and the
Scripps Howard newspaper chain offers a "spelling bee" game based on the
rules of the National Spelling Bee
(www.msnbc.com/modules/DL_spelling_bee/game/) (Figures 7 and 8).
The MSNBC Web site contains a simulation game "Fuel the Future" in which
users try to solve the energy needs of the United States by the year 2020
(www.msnbc.com/news/468331.asp). As part of a larger context of energy
awareness and the complexities involving traditional and innovative energy
options, the simulation game challenges users to think of how energy is
obtained and at what cost (Figure 9).
With a $15,000 grant from the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, The Herald
newspaper of Everett, Washington created an interactive multimedia
simulation program called the "Waterfront Renaissance Project." The Web
site for the project (waterfront.heraldnet.com/develop2.cfm) states that it
"is a multimedia endeavor to stimulate community involvement in the future
redevelopment of four major pieces of public property along Possession
Sound and the Snohomish River. We hope to engage readers through
journalistic forms of print, broadcast, video, the Internet and a town hall
meeting. We want to reconnect the community through teaching, listening and
reporting and will encourage residents to talk to one another. Consider
this your ticket to a place where you can dream about what Everett's
waterfronts could look like in 10 or 20 years" (Figure 10).
"Playing the News" workshop participants came to the conclusion that game
playing as a part of news stories should give users a better understanding
of the issue, a greater involvement in the story, test the user's knowledge
about the story, and keep users on the news entity's Web site—a realistic
marketing consideration because Web site revenue is often determined by how
long a user "sticks" with a site.
Trans-Media Simulated Experiences
One of the most innovative and potentially promising news presentations is
the trans-media simulated experience. News users learn of a journalistic
story through all possible media of presentation—graphic design,
informational graphics, photography, motion pictures, television and video,
computer programs that use virtual reality technology within immersible
environments such as museums.
Workshop participants for a conference called "The Content Connection: News
in the Age of Access" sponsored by an organization named "New Directions
for News," a Minneapolis-based think tank "devoted to fostering innovation
in the news and information industry," described trans-media story telling
as a "conveyed experience." According to the description on the
conference's Web site, conveyed experiences include "guide-and-direct
coverage, advocacy journalism, cultural expression, section-specific
understanding, simulations, expert modeling, classic investigation,
conversations, and audience participation" using such "vehicles" as "print,
TV, Web, radio, wireless, email, direct mail, online and offline forums,
CD/DVD, art, music, sports, and theater."
Trans-media experiences is a hybrid of presentations that contains
information about stories with relevant content and interest for a passive
consumer, but is presented in such a way that even the most cynical and
uninterested person becomes engaged. An object of good journalism is to
help people understand how their view of themselves and their place in the
world is a part of a larger societal context, technology should be employed
not only to help people know of a story, but to help them feel the story.
Creators of this type of media presentation understand that one can only
feel a story if he or she is the story.
Interactive news presentations combined within museum-type exhibits
employing virtual reality technology come close in recreating for a
consumer the situation and emotions of those caught up, through no fault of
their own, news events. The Gannett newspaper chain's "Newseum" outside
Washington D.C. tells the story of journalism with trans-media technologies
and techniques that are also employed by its Web version, "Cyber Newseum."
A recent exhibit of women photographers for National Geographic magazine
uses Flash software so that users can hear photographers tell the stories
behind their images (Figure 11).
Another example of an overpowering trans-media simulated experience is
demonstrated by the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Even the museum's
architecture signals a relationship between the exhibits and the subject
matter. Architect James Ingo Freed, of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners writes,
"Its architecture is intended to engage [emphasis added] the visitor and
stir the emotions, allow for horror and sadness, ultimately to disturb. It
must take you in its grip."
For example, design features in the Hall of Witness "summon more directly
the tragic themes of the Holocaust. Crisscrossed steel trappings seem to
brace the harsh brick walls against some great internal pressure. Inverted
triangular shapes repeat in windows, floors, walls, and ceilings. The
Hall's main staircase narrows unnaturally toward the top, like receding
rail tracks heading to a camp. Exposed beams, arched brick entryways,
boarded windows, metal railings, steel gates, fences, bridges, barriers,
and screens—all 'impound' the visitor, and are disturbing signals of
separation" (Figure 12).
Creating an immersible environment on a single subject in which a visitor
becomes a participant is no doubt costly. But the lessons learned by the
ways a complex story is told within a museum environment can be translated
to smaller gallery spaces and with online computer presentations.
Trans-media simulated experiences hold the most promise in turning passive
news viewers into active news engagers.
Creating a Culture of Engagers
Without massive governmental aid in the form of educational and economic
incentives, laggards will not proceed to higher levels. However, through a
concerted effort of educational innovations with encouragement from peers
and mentors, these news consumers can learn to use the news in less passive
and more enlightening ways.
Likewise, the elitists of the early adopter group will probably resist new
forms of news presentations until they can be assured that technological
innovations can mimic and enhance the media formats they currently use.
Portable, flat-screen, wireless remote devices that maintain the look and
experience of reading paper-based books and journals may be the only
presentation format that will appeal to these news consumers.
However, many of the news innovations described above would be immediately
appealing to both majority groups and the innovators. Through continual
contact and encouragement, these individuals can join together to become
not only informed users, but also innovative producers.
Mass communication and journalism instructors should take the initiative
and meet with instructors from other disciplines that in the past have been
separated by traditional modes of thinking. Theatre, art, music, computer
science, philosophy, and other instructors and students should work
together to produce trans-media collaborations. Grant applications should
be completed to obtain funds for equipment, instructor time, conferences,
and new media centers.
Future Research and Conclusions
Future research should test the connection between news consumer categories
and the news innovations described above. For example, a survey instrument
could be created from the individual characteristics detailed by Rogers to
discover a subject's diffusion category. Subjects could then be presented
news presentations that should fit their level of innovation. From this
data, educators and news managers could design presentations that appeal to
more news consumers.
At its best, journalism engages a reader, viewer, user, and/or consumer
with the facts and people involved in a story. Within the context of a
story, engagement can lead to connections between users, the people that
are a part of the story, and the producers of the story.
Albert Borgmann in Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life
writes, "... the acquisition of skills, the fidelity to a daily discipline,
the broadening of sensibility, the profound interaction of human beings,
and the preservation and development of tradition. These traits we may
bring together under the heading of engagement. The good life, then, is one
of engagement, and engagement is variously realized by various people.
Engagement would not only harmonize the variety among people but also
within the life of one person."
When consumers become producers, unanticipated relationships are
established. There is more interactivity between producers and consumers,
between producers and producers, and between consumers and consumers. Such
engaging interactivity perhaps can lead to an increase in:
1. A person's self worth,
2. Societal, environmental, and cultural understanding,
3. The overall population's knowledge base on a wider range of topics,
4. Technological innovations that foster interactivity and empowerment, and
5. What has been called "the good life."
The field of visual journalism can lead the way and teach others that
technology can become a tool that "promotes excellence and engagement."
 Inspired from a personal conversation with the author's
 For example, see "COMM 203: Introduction to Visual Journalism
Production" available on March 21, 2003 at
 Bender, W., et. al. "Enriching communities: Harbingers of news in the
future" available on March 21, 2003 at
 "Overview of Social Constructivism," available on March 21, 2003 at
 Rogers, E. M. (1995). Diffusion of Innovations Fourth Edition, New
York: Free Press, pp. 252-280.
 This paper is roughly inspired by the work of Nora Paul and
presentations made during the "Playing the News: Journalism, Interactive
Narrative and Games" workshop held at the University of Minnesota,
November, 2001 available on March 21, 2003 at
 Bender, W., et. al.
 Kampinsky, Ellen, et. al. "Amazoning the News" available on March 21,
2003 at http://www.hypergene.net/ideas/amazon_1.html.
 Outing, Steve. (March 13, 2002). "Interactive News is Newspaper-Wide
Effort in Spokane," Editor & Publisher. Available on March 21, 2003 at
and Ken Sands' blog coverage available on March 21, 2003 at
 Bender, W., et. al.
 Interview with Walter Bender available on March 21, 2003 at
 "Playing the News."
 "The Content Connection: News in the Age of Access,"
 "National Geographic's Women Photographers" available on March 21,
2003 at the Newseum's Web site at www.newseum.org/womenphotographers/index.htm.
 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum available on March 21, 2003
 Borgmann, Albert. (1984). Technology and the Character of
Contemporary Life. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p. 214.
 Albert Borgmann, Professor of Philosophy, The University of Montana,
personal communication, March, 2002