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The Bits Are Rotting in the State of Data Journalism

News articles are an incredibly important source of historical information. Online media and interactive pieces are much more at risk of breaking or disappearing, at least in theory. Well, it's not just theory. A quick look around shows a number of even fairly recent pieces in major publications that are broken today.

The screenshot above is from this 2013 piece about the "Obamacare" healthcare exchanges. This is what it should look like:


The same has happened to a number of other pieces at the Washington Post, like this piece about helicopter crashes (CSS broken, Flash app can't load its data), Homicides in the District (CSS broken, but still functional if hard to use), and How long will we live, and how well (broken CSS makes tooltip unusable, country selection no longer works).

And it's not just the Washington Post. It seems that the bit rot has befallen many of the New York Times' Flash pieces as well. Where once there was the fantastic Jobless Rate for People Like You, you're now just staring at a big hole.


The same is true for another one of my favorites, Amanda Cox's amazing Turning A Corner? I did not check more because I could not deal with the sadness of seeing all these beautiful pieces disappearing from the web.

If the Washington Post and the New York Times can't keep their interactive pieces alive, who can? How are people going to be able to experience them in three years, five years, twenty years, one hundred years? You only have to glance over the fantastic pieces Scott Klein is unearthing from newspapers 100 and more years old – they're all still there, well preserved, on paper – to realize what an incredible loss this will eventually be.

Perhaps the WaPo and NY Times can fix these things now. But when will they break again? How long will there be a way to run Flash at all? I can only see Flash pieces on my laptop now (not on my iPad or iPhone), and only in Chrome (it just causes too many issues in Safari and I have no use for it other than the occasional old news piece). How much longer will Flash even be around? What then?

News are not just relevant in the moment, they become historical record. In the shorter term, they're also valuable because they represent highly interesting experiments in visualization. I don't care about the unemployment rate seven years ago, but I do think that The Jobless Rate for People Like You is a reference for how to present data and make people understand something about statistics. Losing these is very painful.

Posted by Robert Kosara on July 13, 2016.