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Using a timeline to clarify an ongoing news event

September 24, 2009

Teachers in the Kent School District went on strike recently (it’s since been resolved) and pushed back the start of school—naturally, our local newsbrand was producing a ton of information and it was a big story for a lot of people in the area. In an attempt to wrangle the coverage, I put together a general information page with my usual stuff—informative static links, some art and a feed of headlines via Publish 2—but I also put together a quick timeline of events that I continually updated throughout the strike. The timeline consisted of important dates during the strike, a quick summary of what happened on that date and a link out to the corresponding story/ies.

I didn’t get a hell of a lot of feedback on it, and I don’t think I got any reader feedback, but I’m going to stick to it when news events like this come up. It’s not hurting anyone by being out there and from where I sit, it only stands as a handy thing to link to when you’d otherwise have to write an at-least-paragraph-long “nut graph” explaining the situation every time you post something new.

The timeline served a few other interesting purposes:

  • It forced me to look back over what had been published (I was merely an editor in this instance and didn’t do any original reporting) and contrast what was being said by stakeholders then with what was being said now. If I had been reporting the story, it would have provided me with better context of the situation, fresh and critical questions and prevented lapses into stenography (not that that necessarily happened—our staff did a great job reporting).
  • It also helped “trim the fat,” in essence, because from the get-go I made a rule that the timeline would only include events that affected or stood to affect the outcome of the story (as opposed to just a timeline of stories we posted). For instance, the teachers union held a few rallies during the strike and we covered them—but they didn’t make it into a timeline because a rally in and of itself doesn’t really do anything. When the school district filed an injunction to try and force the teachers back to work, however, that made the timeline. (To be fair, if a rally had resulted in the district having a change of heart and prompted some sort of action, I would have retroactively applied that to the timeline. I still will.)
  • Now that the strike’s over, the timeline is basically acting as a archive/wiki of the whole fiasco. It was a very contentious strike that ended quickly and I’d imagine that many of the issues that were raised are going to come up again; when that happens, we’ll have a dynamic Web page that offers us and our readers a refresher that doesn’t come in the form of a rerun (re: more reporting/time/money on stuff we’ve already covered).

Update: As my boss, Seth, mentioned in the comments, we launched a mini-site today based around transportation concerns in the Pacific Northwest. It includes a Flash-based timeline with photo, text and video elements and was put together by Andrew Dally, a former coworker of ours.

I also took the time to link to a site Seth showed me a while back, Dipity, which allows you to build 3D embeddable timelines that contain various kinds of multimedia. I haven’t used it yet, but it’s definitely impressive to look at.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 24, 2009 8:28 pm

    Paul, it’s also worth noting that sometimes a little style and (literally) Flash helps. Our just-launched King County transportation site includes a visual timeline built in Flash. This container could be repurposed relatively easily to be included in ongoing coverage of large news events.

  2. September 24, 2009 8:30 pm

    I think timelines are great. They give a quick summary with context and definitely help see how a story (or other major event) progresses.

  3. Robbie permalink
    September 24, 2009 9:29 pm

    definitely a good idea. i get bored reading the same summaries or nut grafs of stories that i follow.

  4. September 24, 2009 9:58 pm

    @Seth – Andrew’s timeline is awesome. Came together really well and in a much more aesthetically pleasing manner than mine :)

    Speaking of which, I’m suddenly reminded of Dipity, which you showed me a few months back. Helps set up interactive timelines, like this one on health care reform. Pretty awesome-looking, though I haven’t actually tried it yet.

  5. September 25, 2009 12:06 am

    I did a simple HTML table timeline last week for the 6 month anniversary of the disappearance of a woman in the UK which has been covered extensively.

    As with yours Paul, the feedback was zilch, but I agree with you-it doesn’t hurt anyone and means someone actually rakes over previous articles to get the facts straight.

    I’ve seen quite a few timelines on big multimedia projects but often they seem to be an afterthought and end up with a simple flash embed with about a sentence for each event..

  6. September 25, 2009 9:43 am

    @adamwestbrook – The links to our past stories were definitely key—without them, I would’ve just had a page out of a book on the Internet. I generally go by Jay Rosen’s “give you more than you bargained for” thought. You can’t put a limit on how much information an individual reader—someone really invested in your story—will want and for those who don’t want that much info, well, they don’t have to click the links.

    Besides all that, from a newsroom/business point of view, a timeline is a great way to get more mileage out of old content.

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