Major Studio: Interface – Final Project [paper – full content]

December 21, 2007

Exposing the Influence and Culture of Online News Through Data Visualization


My final project for Major Studio: Interface is an online news aggregator widget service that graphically visualizes the supply and demand of news through a feed that generates top news from the largest news organizations of the Associated Press and Reuters, and a feed that generates from major online tabloids to comparatively show the activity of these two feeds that heavily generate popular news. The goal of this project is to visually show the activity between what news is being read the most online and what news it being generated the most prolifically online through a programmed widget that sits on a computer desktop and serves to tell the user this information without opening a web browser and searching the web.

It is not made to open the debate on what is newsworthy, but to visually measure the activity of these two feeds and show what people are turning to as news at any given moment.


Because online news is becoming more tailored to individuals through the use of blogs and RSS feeds, it’s easy for people to choose what news they want to read. However, the content that is actually being read from the largest news sources covering mainstream top news is unclear. An article from Journalism.org states that “…the issue of whether citizens define the news differently than professionals is a growing question due to news sites offering their visitors a sense of what others found interesting: what news stories were the most emailed, and most viewed?” (The Latest News Headlines—Your Vote Counts”, Journalism.org 12 September 2007). By aggregating news from the Associated Press and Reuters, my project would graphically and visually compare the supply and demand of online news, with regards to what people are reading compared to how much is being produced. It would provide a service that would visualize what top news is generated in a mainstream news category and what top news is generated in the top news for Other News, or news generated by online tabloids, how much is being produced on those stories and what people are paying the most and least attention to, at any point in time. The project considers the fact that the stories that are the most generated are not always the most popularly read, and that at any given time, a story in one category may be getting more readership than a story in another news category based on what people are wanting to read, thus reflecting what people’s attitudes and preferences are towards top media stories.

Artist Statement:

The Major Studio: Interface course has exposed me to a plethora of media, resources, and design documentation that I was unaware of before coming into the Design and Technology program. There are so many easily accessible resources that document unique innovations in design that will prove to be valuable throughout the program, such as the blogs and online databases that were explored through the class. Through the theoretical study of interface design and interactivity as seen through a social-oriented goal, and actually putting these studies into practice through the Value Fictions and Instruction Set for Strangers projects, I’ve been able to apply the criteria that yields a successful design and user experience with a real world purpose and application through my final project. Although my skill background is mainly focused in print design, I have always been driven by conceptual design, which has made me increasingly aware of subject matter that would be well represented through interactive design. I’m driven by color and typography and the contributions these elements can make to the psychology of design. Most of my work reveals that I often try to find practicality through design, so there is a greater chance that I would be found creating something with a real-world application, rather than something that is an artistic expression. In my early fine art education, I would try to make whatever I drew or painted as realistic as possible which I now look back on as a sign that my later work would have a strong focus on the audience targeted, the use of the design, and the conceptual application. I’m strongly influenced by work that is clever and implements a unique way to visualize information. Having practice and knowledge in technology has proved to be an increasingly important aspect of being a successful designer, which is where my main focus of my career development currently lies. Significant technological knowledge is crucial in able to do breakthrough work in today’s design industry. I had little awareness and few innovative technology skills before entering the Design and Technology program. As I am currently inundated with access to technologies that can create projects with breakthrough results, I’m able to consider many different topics and platforms for creating work. At this time, the biggest challenge I have of actually implementing my final Major Studio project is determining the technological direction to take in order to obtain data and allow my project to function.


My motivation for pursuing this project comes from a strong interest in data visualization and exploring ways to graphically represent a conceptual idea based within the realm of a controversial topic with constantly changing information. I am interested in taking an idea with information that would be difficult to see collectively and visually represent the relationships and patterns going on for anyone to see and better understand. With web technologies, I would be able to obtain some of the necessary information easily and make it visible to anyone. Most people I encounter regularly are not focusing on top news put out by mainstream media sources, but rather scraping through a variety of unconventional news sources and blogs to find the news that they want to read about. I wanted to visually show this concept through a design that will visually track this activity, but is also practical and can easily be used to get news generated throughout any time of day. My personal motivations for this project come from experiences I had while living and working in Washington, D.C. Being the city of newsmakers, most people come to D.C. to pursue jobs in the political scene where they can be in the middle of and part of the political changes and activities going on in our country. I was fortunate enough to have a unique opportunity to be in the middle of this activity while working as a graphic designer on the Kerry-Edwards 2004 campaign. In that environment, I was surrounded by people who knew what was going on in the top national news stories and who were a part of adding to and shaping the most active topic at the time, the 2004 presidential election. Many people I associated with were employed in politics, so I was always “ in the know” about what was going on with the most prolific topics at the time. When the campaign was over and I moved into working in the corporate job scene, I noticed that I became increasingly unaware of what was going on in mainstream news. Being around friends who knew the various happenings of Capitol Hill, I felt greatly detached from the main culture of D.C. Most people I worked with paid attention more to top tabloid stories than anything else. It really drove me to think about how many people are really paying attention to heavily produced mainstream news stories.

An article on Journalism.org about a report released by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) on September 12, 2007, showed that this concept is currently under watch. By studying the results of user-news sites Digg, Reddit, and Del.icio.us over a one-week period, it was found that the top collection of the news on these sites was significantly different than the top news in conventional media. “In a week when the mainstream press was focused on Iraq and the debate over immigration, the three leading user-news sites — Reddit, Digg and Del.icio.us — were more focused on stories like the release of Apple’s new iphone and that Nintendo had surpassed Sony in net worth.” The article also noted that there were differences among Yahoo’s Most Recommended news, Most Viewed news, and Most Emailed news, Recommended news, Most Viewed news, and Most Emailed news (“The Latest News Headlines—Your Vote Counts”, Journalism.org 12 September 2007). Differences between my design and concept and the sites Digg, Reddit, and Del.icio.us is that each site collectively gathers what the web community finds the most newsworthy, captivating, or just amusing by users actively posting that content or links to those sites. Sites or articles posted to these user-centered sites have been found to come mostly from blogs or sites like Youtube and Webmd.com, and usually is not as focused on mainstream news.


There are several precedents that influenced the focus of my project. Maramushi.com has a newsmap application that visualizes the constant activity of the Google News through a treemap visualization algorithm that shows relationships and patterns in news reporting within several different cultures around the world. It can be focused on one or several news categories for the culture the user chooses to focus on.

marumushi newsmap http://marumushi.com/apps/newsmap/

This application prompted me to consider the additional factors that occur within online news media culture, that being what people are actually reading versus what is written for which I have made a main component of the design and interactivity of my project.
Tag Clouds are another application that visually displays the attention that content posted on the web is receiving in real-time, whether it be news stories or blog posts. There are three types of Tag Clouds that look similar but represent different things. One type measures the number of times a tag has been applied to an item. The second type represents the number of items that the tag has bee applied to. A third type of Tag Cloud represents the number of content items in the specific category it represents.

tag clouds http://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/

Technorati.com is a site that displays rising blog posts and news stories by attention through tracking links and alerts users as to what news is being actively tagged on blogs in real-time. It is a recognized as an authority on what is happening on the World Live Web at any moment.

technorati http://technorati.com/

Iminlikewithyou.com is a site where the reactions and comments that members post about top tabloid news stories or videos are just as part of the site as the news itself. Comments are overlayed on top of the stories and appear on the main story posting in real time.

iminlikewithyou http://iminlikewithyou.com/

The Pew Center for Research: For the People and the Press is a nonpartisan fact tank that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends form the culture of America. The Center has a lot of pertinent information and documentation on the focus of my project. It studies attitudes toward the press, politics and public policy issues. It is best known for regular national surveys that measure public attentiveness to major news stories. It also charts trends in values and fundamental political and social attitudes (The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, http://people-press.org/about/).


I decided to prototype my concept and aggregator as a widget because I wanted it to be a practical and useful tool that the average person could use to get top news, and to be aware of the patterns of news reporting and readership. Instead of measuring top news by tags from blogs or tag clouds which are intentionally posted, I thought that determining readership from metrics such as “the most commented”, “the most viewed, and “the most emailed” news stories which determine popular news stories on sites such as Yahoo and Google news and the New York Times online would be a better way to determine what’s being read since those metrics are unintentional ways of showing the most read news contrary to tags which are intentionally posted by those wanting to populate a particular story or topic.

Since the sources that are being fed through the aggregator, The Associated Press, Reuters, TMZ.com, Perez Hilton.com, and Pagesix.com, supply news to numerous other online news sources, the aggregator would ideally be able to determine where those stories are showing up among other the sources that obtain top news stories from them in order to retrieve data on how many articles are being produced on the stories feeding though.

I chose to focus one column of the news feed on news produced by the Associated Press and Reuters because they are the biggest news resources that feed to several popular online news sources, and one column on tabloid news because many people choose to heavily read that type of news on a regular basis. There are many attention-grabbing headlines and news stories that have sensational content, mostly about celebrities, that many people find fascinating and intriguing, and tend to follow or write about regularly, given the growing amount of blogs, sections of mainstream online news sources, and television news shows dedicated to this topic. There have been many times when a shocking news story involving a celebrity completely overtakes the media for period of time (i.e. Paris Hilton’s stint in jail, the death of Anna Nicole Smith, and Michael Jackson’s child molestation trial). Separating this category into one column next to the column designated for the mainstream top news would enhance the data visualization of the coverage and readership that this genre of news receives versus the news feeding through the other column.

The ideal audience for this service would be people that are interested in receiving news produced by mainstream online media, or news generated in sources that are considered tabloids and fall into the Other News category. It would be useful to anyone interested in visually seeing patterns within news coverage and readership that would otherwise be difficult to see, and would appropriately serve people that spend a lot of time in front of a computer, whether it be for work, or school, and want to be able to quickly know what is going on in the news based on story’s title without having to pick and search through a corporate news website. If a user decides that they want to read a particular story, they are given the option of what source they want to read from through a window that appears next to the program when the user clicks on that particular story.


My first prototype was going to focus only on American based news, and was going to aggregate from Google News. It had a column for news that was fed into the category of Frivolous News and a column for several categories that included World, U.S., Business, and Technology news for which I was denoting as mainstream news. Readership was determined by the color-coded circles next to each article, and the frequency of articles about the stories feeding through was determined by the hue of the background color separating the titles of each story.

Prototype 1:


In my second prototype, I removed the indication that one column was for frivolous news and changed it to Other News based on audience feedback since I no longer wanted to give away the idea that the news fed through that column was supposed to be frivolous. The prototype was still ideally going to aggregate from Google News, and I kept the column of news categories for the mainstream news column because I wanted to continue exploring how that would affect the outcome of the widget. Indicating the levels of readership was simplified by using color-coded book icons next to each article, and I kept the indication of the frequency of articles for the stories feeding through by the hue of the background color of each news story title.

Prototype 2:

prototype 2

My final prototype reflects changes about my conclusions regarding where I should choose to aggregate news. I removed the categories altogether and just focused on top news as a whole aggregating from the largest news organizations of the Associated Press and Reuters for the left column, and I focused on aggregating news from major online tabloids for the second column, which kept indicating the news feeding through to this column as Other News from the previous prototype since that seemed to be working well for the purpose of the project. Readership is now indicated by the hue of the background color and the number of articles collected for the online presence of each story is indicated by a digital ticker which counts the presence of articles of the story indicated.

Prototype 3:


Results and Conclusions:

The initial feedback I received on my first prototype indicated that the focus of the project was not narrow enough to provide a unique way of retrieving news and visualizing patterns of news reporting and readership. After sending out a short survey and along with my initial prototype to approximately 30 people, I received feedback that greatly affected the development of subsequent prototypes. Some of the comments I received stated that “the actual circles are too big”, and “the word ‘frivolous’: a lot of people actually read them and they may not want to think “frivolous” every time they do so”. I was told to “make it even more different from an RSS feed”, that a user would “like to know where the news stories are coming from”, and that “Google News includes more news sites than just U.S. based stuff. How do you control that?”. Based on this feedback, I gradually narrowed down my prototype from aggregating news from Google News through different categories most commonly found on news sites to aggregating from the Associated Press and Reuters, and the most prolific tabloid sites. I found that when I idealized aggregating from Google News it was going to be more difficult to control what was going to fall into the separate columns, and that dividing the left column of mainstream news into categories was making the focus of the project too complicated. Based on classroom feedback, I found that indicating readership by background color hue and indicating frequency of articles by a number was more profound in communicating the data that the widget is gathering. I wanted to make the news feeding through each column unchangeable to the user and keep this project from being too much like an RSS feed, which was accomplished by removing the option of choosing the activity of a category of top news to view.

The feedback I received from the survey and in-class presentations, did indicate that this would be a useful tool in revealing otherwise unseen patterns and comparisons in news readership and production, and in being able to track this data as it is revealed through top news released online in real time. As I have modified this project through several iterations, I have become increasingly more interested in this subject matter and would like to continue researching metrics that would be useful in indicating how much and specifically what top news is actually being read by the public online, and how to track where the stories aggregated through the feeds are being posted on other news sites in order to retrieve accurate data on the number of stories posted on a particular news topic. I would also like to explore other ways to visualize the data retrieved so that it may be viewed on a larger scale, perhaps as an exhibition piece, to make a more profound statement about the purpose of the project. Continuing to gain more outside feedback will also enable me to further develop this project into what would hopefully be a working product.


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