08 June 2016
News is beautiful
Today's news may not always be happy, but it is often beautiful to look at. A new book, Visual Storytelling: Infographic Design in News, by Lu Yikun and Dong Zhao, shows how the rise in data journalism and reusable data sources has led to an explosion in infographics and data visualisations. These have been created by a skillful set of designers who can turn raw data into eye-catching illustrations that make better sense of the world while delighting the eye.
The book provides a background to the different types of data journalism design - pie charts, bar charts, radar charts, word clouds, 3D graphs, real-time maps and heat maps - and gives some of the history of the form. Mostly it is given over to sumptuous examples of news infographics produced by designers across the world. The index of artists at the back of the book provides web addresses, from which you can discover the extraordinary array of work being done by what is, in effect, a new branch of professional journalism. Here are some examples (all of them illustrated in the book).
Erik Nylund, 'The Average Resident in Helsingborg'. Reproduced with permission.
Erik Nylund is an infographics designer and illustrator, from Malmö, Sweden. His infographic, 'The Average Resident in Helsingborg', produced for Swedish newspaper Helsingsborgs Dagblad, takes data about the residents of Helsingborg and appositely presents the numbers as part of the anatomy of the resident (even down to one of four fingers conveniently expressing a figure of 26%).
Erik Nylund, 'Statistics about James Bond Movies'. Reproduced with permission.
Nylund produced this infographic in response to a competition from the www.informationisbeautiful.net website, which provided data about James Bond movies and invited designers to express it creatively. It was published by the Swedish newspaper Sydsvenska Dagblade in 2012.
Ciaran Hughes, 'Workers Arise!' Reproduced with permission.
Ciaran Hughes is a Irish artist and designer, who has produced infographics for many newspapers, public and commercial sector clients. His 'Workers Arise!' was a front page graphic for the Daily Telegraph that accompanied an article on apprentices in the workplace. Its inspiration was the work of the great Russian graphic designer Alexander Rodchenko, and it makes powerful, symbolic use of the red bars and the worker's hand gripping a wrench - a model example of the coming together of theme and form.
Henrik Petterson, images from his series 'The Graph'. Reproduced with permission.
Henrik Petterson producers a regular infographic series for economia magazine, entitled 'The Graph'. Subtitled 'Britain in numbers: a statistical portrait of the month just gone', it illustrates not only how news information can be dynamically visualised, but shows by its regularity how it can function as a news service.
If you are interested to see more of the work of news infographic designers, here are some links to the individual designers mentions, some designer showcase sites and prominent news data sites:
- Erik Nylund - http://www.eriknylund.se
- Ciaran Hughes - http://www.ciaranhughes.co.uk
- Henrik Petterson - http://www.henrikpettersson.co.uk
- BBC News: Interactives and Graphics - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/11628973
- Behance - https://www.behance.net (design showcase)
- Bloomberg Billionaires - http://www.bloomberg.com/billionaires (great example of automated data news)
- FiveThirtyEight (Nate Silver) - http://fivethirtyeight.com (news data site)
- Guardian Data - http://www.theguardian.com/data
- information is beautiful - http://www.informationisbeautiful.net (design showcase)
- Newspage Designer - http://newspagedesigner.org (design showcase)
- The Upshot - http://www.nytimes.com/section/upshot (New York Times news data site)
Visual Storytelling boldly claims that "data journalism is the future of journalism". It has certainly become an indispensable part of modern news production, and given the predicted rise in automated or robot journalism, we are likely to be seeing more and more of it. However, a robot is probably only going to provide us with bar charts. For wit, design flair, and deeper understanding, we are dependent on a talented group of designers, who like all good journalists, take raw observation and convert it into information and insight.
Political Meetings Mapper, produced using Open Street Map
A final thought is why the skills applied to create infographics out of current news data are not applied more often to historical news data? More and more is being done by researchers, here at the British Library and elsewhere, to undertake analyses of large-scale historical news data sets. There have been some visualisations produced, such as the maps generated by Dr Katrina Navickas for her Political Meetings Mapper project on 19th century Chartist meeting found in our newspaper archives. Machines are good at producing maps, but what more could be done if infographic designers could get their hands on such data? It's something we need to be exploring further.
01 June 2016
St. Pancras Intelligencer no. 39
It's time for another edition in our occasional series on news about news, the St Pancras Intelligencer. Here are some of the recent stories on where news and where it might be going which have caught our eye.
Google's Accelerated Mobile Pages Project
Death to the Mass - Jeff Jarvis writes on the death of the traditional idea of the mass media as delivering the same content to everyone. What replaces it will be tailored to the individual, who is now the king over everything:
What has died is the mass-media business model — injuring, perhaps mortally, a host of institutions it symbiotically supported: publishing, broadcasting, mass marketing, mass production, political parties, possibly even our notion of a nation. We are coming at last to the end of the Gutenberg Age.
All well and good, says Roy Greenslade, but how in this brave new world are we to save public interest journalism?
When it comes to social media, news consumers tend to stick with 1 source - Media plurality is all very good, but humans still tend to stick with the familiar. The Pew Research Center and Knight Foundation find that 64 percent of social media news consumers get their news on just one favorite site.
43 percent of social media users don't know where the stories they read originally appeared - Some disheartening news for all news brands, as Digiday reports that 43% of social media users are unaware of them.Why China fakes 488 million social media posts a year - Mind-boggling report from Mashable on how China's government fills its social media with positive social media comments to distract its citizens from bad or politically sensitive news.
Digital archives of British national newspapers - Our own guide to current UK national newspapers available digitally at the British Library (and those which can't be found digitally anywhere).
A neighbor is better than a newspaper - A rather heartening report from Solutions Journalism Network, showing how the oldest form of news distribution - word-of-mouth - operates in rural Western mountain communities in the USA.
Facebook's Instant Articles
Facebook news selection is in hands of editors not algorithms, documents show - So many stories out there about how Facebook's algorithms are shaping the world's news. The Guardian reports on the humans behind the algorithms making selection decisions much like a traditional media organisation. Quartz has Facebook’s news feed algorithm is so mysterious, users are developing “folk theories” about how it works; Will Cathcart at The Verge has a long talk with Facebook about its role in journalism; Fusion reminds us that the real ‘news curators’ at Facebook are the engineers who write its algorithms; while The Independent reports Facebook denies claims it suppressed conservative and controversial news on its ‘Trending Topics’ sidebar.
Facebook is the new paperboy - And there's more. Matt Carroll at Medium traces the history of news distribution from paperboys to platforms, and how this is changing how newsrooms work.
Social networks could do much more to protect eyewitnesses in breaking news - Josh Stearns at FirstDraftNews calls on Facebook, Twitter and Google to do more to help eyewitnesses supplying on-the-spot news at disasters to protect and understand their rights.
Beware the ‘false consciousness’ theory: newspapers won’t decide this referendum - Charlie Beckett at LSE's Polis blog says that traditional newspapers no longer have the influence over something like the EU Referendum debate that campaigners imagine they have.
How the New York Times plans to conquer the world - Alex Spence at Politico reports on how the New York Times is eyeing Europe for new digital subscribers.
Suddenly, national newspapers are heading for that print cliff fall - The end has been nigh for a while now, but Roy Greenslade is now certain: newspapers "have no future".
A BBC for the future - And finally, among all the stories coming out the BBC White Paper - funding local journalists, cutting back on sections of its News website, no longer running local news index web pages, possibly merging the News and World channels - we were pleased to see this line lurking towards the back of the document: "There should be particular scope to do more to enable access to BBC historic news archive". Let's hope so.
14 April 2016
Using old newspapers
Denise Bates is a writer on social history whose latest book, Historical Research using British Newspapers, is a guide to using newspaper archives in research, particularly the British Newspaper Archive. In this guest blog post, she describes what led her to write about using digitised newspapers.
The inspiration for Historical Research Using British Newspapers was a very modern concept; the blog. I used old newspapers extensively whilst researching my first two books, Pit Lasses and Breach of Promise to Marry. The positive reaction to my blog for the British Newspaper Archive about the differences between national and local newspapers surprised me as I had not expected this to be new learning. After more investigation I realised that twenty-first century historians have an exciting new resource, digitised, on-line newspapers, but little information about using them effectively. The seeds of my next project were planted.
When I first started using old newspapers, like many researchers I was learning on the job and made mistakes along the way. These included not knowing which titles were the best ones to consult first and thus wasting time trying to understand a topic that was well-covered in a different publication. I also made unrealistic assumptions about how much time was needed to locate and study reports. I decided on a book which brought together the many issues that are relevant to users of old newspapers, including the history of the press, how to find good quality information, how to use it productively and the pitfalls to avoid.
Digitised newspapers have a growing fan-base. Their preserved pages contain a rich vein of forgotten material, allowing researchers to broaden their enquiries from the standard sources on many topics and to cite new examples, rather than recycling the same few. Newspapers sometimes offer an unorthodox view of the past, with content which challenges the version that has been handed down in exam syllabuses and popular histories alike. For topics that have not been studied or written about, newspapers are an accessible way of rediscovering aspects of the past that have been forgotten.
Illustrated Police News 29 July 1882. An artist's impression of a breach of promise case and a case of child cruelty.
Unanticipated discoveries have changed my understanding of the nineteenth century. When I used court reports to delve into the archaic world of the jilted women and men who sued a former fiancé for compensation, I found that no-win-no fee lawyers, who I had previously believed to be a product of the late twentieth century, ran flourishing practices as early as the 1820s. When I looked at several cases involving child cruelty or neglect in the 1890s, I entered a world of high-minded social workers who could not comprehend how the people they were trying to help had to live. Amongst some very serious and indisputable instances of ill-treatment, were several shocking but unwarranted accusations of laziness, selfishness and drunkenness made against caring parents whose wages were too low to feed and clothe their children properly, even though they had been instructed about cleanliness and nutrition. Suddenly I knew the roots of the fear that haunted working-class families as I grew up in the 1960s, that if you didn't do as 'they' said, 'they' might take your children away.
'Eruption of Mount Vesuvius', Penny Illustrated Paper, 17 October 1863. This scene would have been a revelation to most readers of the time.
Every type of material has its drawbacks and old newspapers are far from being the perfect resource. The number of pages that are already on-line can make them unwieldy to handle if a query produces a large number of matches. It is possible to become overwhelmed by detail and miss important information or insight. There are plenty of places in the news chain where error can creep into a report and sometimes they cover a topic in a very superficial way. Occasionally a researcher may strike lucky and quickly locate an editorial or journalist's investigation that provides a complete answer. More usually it will be necessary to find, collate and analyse a number of individual reports in order to uncover the full story or unlock relevant learning.
Almost all sources are affected by bias and newspapers are no exception. They have been subjected to censorship, may have printed propaganda or portrayed opinion as fact. These problems are not insurmountable, but users need to know how to recognise and manage them in order to avoid jumping to false conclusions.
When newspapers were first published, they opened up a wider world to the literate people of the day. Reproduced digitally, they are now allowing twenty-first century researchers to immerse themselves in the past in a way that no other resource can and make new discoveries.
Denise Bates (www.denisebates.co.uk)
23 March 2016
"The lowest, most filthy, most unhealthy and most wicked locality"
Dean Kirby is a journalist who has been covering the news in and around Manchester, his home city, for nearly 20 years. His debut book, Angel Meadow: Victorian Britain's Most Savage Slum, published by Pen & Sword, is the first history of Angel Meadow, the 19th century Manchester slum so vile and dangerous that it was described by Friedrich Engels as "hell upon earth". To find out more about the book, visit www.angelmeadowbook.com. Here, Dean tells how he used British Library newspapers at the British Newspaper Archive to uncover the horrors of Angel Meadow.
When Manchester was the powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution, Angel Meadow was the city’s vilest and most dangerous slum.
A wild and brutal borderland at the northern edge of Cottonopolis, it was home to 30,000 workers who struggled for survival in conditions so appalling that it was described by Friedrich Engels as “hell upon earth” in 1845.
I became fascinated by the story of Angel Meadow when I discovered that my Victorian forefather, an Irish immigrant named William Kirby, had washed up there after surviving the potato famine.
In 2012, archaeologists investigating Victorian Manchester’s horrors made a startling discovery while digging up a car park in Angel Meadow – my ancestor’s home.
They gave me permission to clamber down a shaky ladder to touch the still-sooty bricks of William’s fireplace and the paper-thin walls that separated his 10ft-square, one-up-one-down from the house next door.
As I searched for clues about my ancestor’s life in Manchester’s archives and began formulating the idea of writing a book, I started to drift off to the slum in my imagination.
I descended into damp cellars, stumbled through backyard pigsties and came face-to-face with scarred and tattooed street fighters or “scuttlers” in the slum’s smoke-filled beer houses.
I crept into dingy lodging houses where new arrivals were forced to sleep naked with strangers because it was the only way to keep their clothes free from lice.
The more I read, the most astonished I became by my ancestor’s survival in this hellish place – leading to my own existence more than a century later in the city that his blood sweat and tears had helped to create.
Morning Chronicle, 12 November 1849
My journey of discovery was led by an army of Victorian journalists who walked those streets for real, and whose words have survived among the millions of pages in the British Newspaper Archive.
They included men such as the Fleet Street journalist Angus Bethune Reach, who told readers of the Morning Chronicle in 1849 of his descent into one of Angel Meadow’s many inhabited cellars, where he found an old man asleep in a shallow cave no bigger than a coffin scooped out of the wall.
“The lowest, most filthy, most unhealthy and most wicked locality in Manchester is called, singularly enough, Angel Meadow,” he wrote. “It is full of cellars and inhabited by prostitutes, their bullies, thieves, cadgers, vagrants, tramps and, in the very worst sties of filth and darkness, by those unhappy wretches, the low Irish.”
Another journalist from the Manchester Evening News, my former newspaper, found himself on the run from the police in 1874 after entering a beerhouse disguised as a rogue with a criminal named Mack acting as his guide.
The terrified reporter fled into a lodging house operated by a notorious thief-trainer named Cabbage Ann and found her superintending a wake for an eminent pick-pocket or “gun”.
“The place looked squalid and miserable,” the journalist later wrote, “and the people in it were of poor, miserable appearance, as if they found it hard to live at all.”
Searching the newspaper archive like an investigator hunting for further clues, I slowly managed to piece together the real identity of Cabbage Ann, and other slum dwellers with exotic names such as Jemmy the Crawler, the Badger and Long Dick.
Beautifully-written nineteenth century court reports allowed me to follow every twist and turn of their lengthy criminal careers, while useful snippets such as weather forecasts helped me to say whether it was raining in Manchester when they committed their crimes.
Henry Burgess, from Staffordshire Record Office
I also used census documents and prison archives held by findmypast.co.uk to create pen pictures of the most notorious criminals – right down to their eye colour and tattoos.
One man in particular jumped out from the pages. He was called Henry Burgess (Harry to his relatives) and he was a scuttler who, at just 5ft-tall and with steel-coloured eyes, was the most feared man in Angel Meadow.
Burgess, a neighbour of my ancestor William Kirby, had more than 40 convictions to his name including shop-breaking, rioting and assaults on police. No-one was safe including his partner, Mary Ellen Burns, who lost an eye when he attacked her with an iron poker.
Thanks to the stories in the archive, I eventually managed to track down a prison mugshot of Burgess in which he stares with cold, hard eyes and shaven head towards the camera.
Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 9 May 1893
In all of the hundreds of pages of newsprint that I read during my research, one story involving Burgess perfectly symbolised the horrors of Angel Meadow.
On Saturday, May 6, 1893, as Britain was sweltering under a drought, Burgess got into a row with a rival named Thomas Matthews in the streets of the slum.
He took a paraffin lantern from his sister’s parlour, marched down the street and, planting his feet on the cobbles, threw it at Matthews and turned him into a human fireball.
Matthews, a father to a young daughter, died from horrific burns at Manchester Royal Infirmary in the early hours after giving a statement to the police identifying Burgess as his killer.
Matthews' final words were immortalised in black newspaper ink in one of the many columns, just a few inches long, that had been carefully preserved in the British Newspaper Archive.
I was perhaps the first person to read those words, spoken by Matthews with badly burned lips and tongue, in more than 120 years.
“I am very ill,” he said, “and I believe I am going to die.”
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