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The MediaShift Innovation Spotlight looks in-depth at one great mash-up, database, mapping project or multimedia story that combines technology and journalism in useful ways. These projects can be at major newspaper or broadcast sites, or independent news sites or blogs.

What It Is

The Big Picture is a large-format photo-blog operated by the Boston Globe. Each entry focuses on one topic and presents around 30 images related to that topic: Recent posts have covered the 2008 Greek riots, the Hajj and Eid al-Adha, and scenes from Guantanamo Bay. The photos are collected from wire services and presented with captions at 990 pixels wide. Instead of the slide show or click-through format favored by many news sites, the images are placed vertically down the screen.

Why It’s Innovative

Newspapers and other media outlets use wire photos to add art to text stories. But have you noticed how small these photos usually are? Even online, where the spatial limitations of a print product don’t apply, old media outlets persist in shrinking pictures.

As newspapers struggle to figure out how to tell their stories online, many make the mistake of transfering print rules to the web. This results in the small photos and low-quality videos that frustrate so many users.

The Big Picture has created a way to display powerful images in a user-friendly manner.

Who’s Behind It

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Alan Taylor, a web developer at the Boston Globe, created The Big Picture after noticing that the impact of very powerful wire photographs was being lost because of their tiny display size. He wanted a way to display the photos in as large a size as possible to allow them to speak for themselves.

“You get big beautiful images off the wire that were put at the top of an article in a very small frame,” Taylor told me, during a phone interview, “I thought it could be better. We’ve got these images and we’re a news and storytelling organization. Let’s do it.”

Specs

The site is set up on Movable Type, a blogging software used site-wide by Boston.com.
Taylor takes photos from the newswire access sites, using a few Greasemonkey scripts in Firefox to handle some formatting issues.

Once he has all the data stored in a folder, he decides on the selection and order of photos.

He uses scripts in Photoshop to resize to 990 pixels wide, grab text files with captions and grab HTML code.

Taylor said that he has automated the process as much as possible, considering that the selection and ordering has to be done by a human.

As to the formatting of these “photo essays,” he wanted people to be able to view a photo for as long as they wanted (rather than viewing each photo for a limited time as in a slide-show) and not have to click and wait for a page to load to see the next photo (as in a click-through gallery).

“These images have a tremendous amount of impact and it’s very frustrating to see them in a tiny little slide show,” he said. “I have a strong dislike for slide shows where you have to click next, next, next to drive up page views.”

Challenges

Although newsroom staff thought the idea was worthwhile, Taylor met with some friction because he was not proven in the editorial realm. (On a day-to-day basis, Taylor works on the code that resides within article pages and other parts of the website.) But after he drew up some mock-ups with example entries, he got the buy-in. The Big Picture launched last June, six months after Taylor first started working on it.

The enthusiastic public response proved to be the biggest problem for The Big Picture as Movable Type’s comment system was not designed to handle multiple thousands of comments on a single post. Since the project launched, it has received almost 40,000 comments.

An entry on Hurricane Ike in Texas got so many visitors that it caused the site’s servers to slow down. Although the same images were available elsewhere in the media, the large size of the photos on The Big Picture meant that only there was it possible to truly see the level of devastation. The entry got well over a million page views a day for a week.

3 Questions

What did you learn from creating The Big Picture?

Alan Taylor: After I launched the blog, I started hearing from a lot of people who click on the small photos in online slide shows and galleries, always trying to make the images bigger.

Do you have any plans to expand The Big Picture?

Taylor: I’m still working out some design features. When you go so wide, you get problems with left-to-right navigation and have to put them at top and bottom. There has been some talk about expanding the idea into a weekly feature, maybe with sports.

I noticed there isn’t much advertising on the site; how is your project being monetized?

The advertising department is trying to figure out how to generate revenue from the site.
The audience for The Big Picture is much different from the normal Boston.com audience: Instead of being mostly local, the audience is international. Because the ads on Boston.com are regional, they need to figure out how to leverage the international audience.

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Call for More Spotlights

The MediaShift Innovation Spotlight will run every other week. Please let me know of any innovative projects you are working on or have seen lately. It doesn’t have to be from a major newspaper; it just has to be an innovative blend of journalism and technology. Please e-mail me at mtaylor[at]megantaylor[dot]org to submit a Spotlight recommendation.