When Next Media‘s animation of Tiger Woods’ car crash went viral a year ago, it produced the expected round of debate over whether this was journalism, tabloid entertainment, or something in between. Since then, there’s been no shortage of other entertaining videos from Next, including this one that skewers the WSJ-NYT war, hilariously.
It’s certainly true that some of these animations are fact-free zones; but it’s also true that sometimes animations are the best way to explain complex issues or visualize events that can’t be otherwise seen. This one (not by Next), below, is probably one of the best examples of that kind of animation, explaining how the financial system went over the edge.
But whether it’s journalism or not, there’s perhaps just as important a question: Do they make money?
I confess I don’t have numbers, but Jimmy Lai, Next’s owner, is a savvy businessman who’s proven himself time and again adept at carving out new media markets against the odds and reaping nice returns. From Next’s site, it looks like they’re building a business not just in terms of providing a steady stream of animations to TV stations, but also providing custom animation and graphics services to companies.
So it may well be doing well. That said, video news in general has some key challenges to overcome in an online world. Animation may be a route around it – and perhaps that’s what Jimmy is counting on.
Video, like photography, requires people to be on the spot to capture images. That costs money. If you’re going to get video of the fire, you need to be at the fire. If a plane crashes, you have to get to the crash site. That doesn’t mean just the costs of getting there; it’s the costs of having people available and near enough, etc. It’s true that costs of equipment and transmitting footage have collapsed dramatically; but people costs are still a big issue. That’s probably one reason for the demise of international television newsgathering networks in favor of cheaper and simpler stringer arrangements, ala Global Post.
The second challenge video faces is that search technologies aren’t hugely sophisticated so far when it comes to images and footage. So even the best video in the world – unless it goes viral – might not be found amongst the hours of footage being uploaded to YouTube every second. And counting on every video you make going viral is not much of a business plan.
And the third issue is that good video is just very hard to make. It’s very hard to write a good story, too – but it’s cheaper to sit down and hammer out draft after draft until it’s done. With video, the process is more complicated – you have to shoot the footage that you need, edit it down, add soundtracks, and so on. It just takes longer, involves more people, and ultimately costs more money to do well, in general. So building a business based on producing a steady stream of quality videos is a tough proposition.
Animation changes some of the dynamics of this business equation in at least one fundamental way: You can stay in the office. That potentially cuts down a huge chunk of costs, and allows for a much more steady steam of output. In effect, what Next has done is turn video production into an industrial process, making it a much more predictable business. And along the way, it also allows it to dip into custom production work as well, letting it maximize the use of its staff and sunk overhead costs.
It still faces the other challenges of video – getting its content found, and ensuring quality at a reasonable cost – but those are challenges that Next has managed before.
There’s a broader issue with video, however, and that’s shelf-life. An imperative for media organizations is to find ways to extend the lifespan of what they produce; otherwise we’re locked into a situation where we’re trying to recover the cost of every item we produce in a very short time frame. With text, I think it’s possible to build processes such that we can capture information in structured form and ultimately build new products on top of those databases, as discussed elsewhere in this blog. But video is another story. By its nature, it’s harder to disaggregate and reconstitute into new items.
That’s where animation may come in as well. I don’t mean Next’s Tiger Woods’ video or its take on the NYT-WSJ rivalry; those are entertaining enough, but don’t lend themselves easily to extended shelf-lives. But there should be some ground somewhere between interactive graphics, database-driven applications, and narrative animation where we can build animations that feed off information in an underlying database; and as we update the database, the animation responds.
For example, we could show the BP oil spill will affect the coast as new information – or hypothetical information – comes in. But rather than a dry interactive graphic, could we show it in a more narrative, animated format? The people here to turn to for inspiration are game designers: They’ve learned to build immersive environments that have narrative elements that can change depending on our behavior and other inputs.
So far, what Next is doing doesn’t look much like that – but then these are early days yet, and we’re all still learning.
What it does point to is the need for us to delve much more deeply into understanding, and mastering information design. (Which Wikipedia defines as “the skill and practice of preparing information so people can use it with efficiency and effectiveness. Where the data is complex or unstructured, a visual representation can express its meaning more clearly to the viewer.”
Whether that’s the right definition or not isn’t important. What is clear is that narrative – the journalist’s traditional tool for communication – is being joined by a whole series of other methods of imparting knowledge and information. And whatever else we are, we are at heart communicators. So it behooves us to learn all the ways of communicating.