Data Visualization

The New York Times Without Flash

I’m in love with the New York Times data visualization/infographics division. They consistently put out some of the most amazing visualization pieces (both in print and online) that I’ve ever seen. Their recently geographic analysis of Netflix ratings was absolutely superb. And we all probably saw their election maps (either for 2008 or 2004). They produce stunning displays that convey amazing amounts of information in a way that only interactive graphics can do. And they’re all done in Flash.

A Peek Into Netflix Queues

And for even more check out the NYT’s selected infographics list or simply do a Google search for “interactive graphic” on the New York Times website.

flashSo when you see images showing the missing plugin icon on the New York Times website on the iPad or iPhone, that’s not just some annoying ad that’s not playing or a streaming video. That’s some of the most cutting edge visualization work that’s being produced today. And without Flash it simply doesn’t exist.

Sure, you might be able to recreate some of these without using Flash (I’d argue that many you simply would never be able to do, but that’s for another debate). But the point isn’t whether or not you could eventually do it without Flash. The point is that the New York Times does them all with flash. So we need to ask why. It’s not an accident or an arbitrary technology choice. Newspapers operate on a schedule and a budget (and one that is getting tighter and tighter). The simple truth is, creating amazing visualizations like you see on the NYT website is possible and easy with Flash. They use the tools that get the job done most efficiently and produce the best end result. This isn’t an argument about whether it’s theoretically possible to create these types of visualizations without Flash, it’s about whether it’s being done. And save for handfuls of examples, it’s not (for every one good JavaScript visualization I’ll show you ten good Flash ones). Taking away the New York Times’ ability to use Flash is setting their data visualization department back 5 or 10 years. And it would mean that we, as readers and citizens, would be missing out on some of the most important journalism being produced today.

The New York Times (like all newspapers) is in crisis. They are trying to reinvent themselves in an online form. And as a news organization they are one of the most progressive and experimental out there. They are embracing the new medium by doing some of the best damn interactive graphic work I’ve ever seen. They make things that convey news and information in ways that draw people in and keep them coming back for more.

But without Flash they’re just a newspaper. And we all know newspapers are dying.