Animated News is Animating the News

Albert Wong - Executive Committee member, HKJA

Taiwan has always been a hotspot for controversial news stories but now the very means by which those stories are told is what’s stirring the controversy.  Simon Lee, General Manager of Next Media Interactive Limited, responsible for the Apple Daily’s animated news, talks to Phyllis Tsang and Albert Wong to explain how the animation works, and why the new style of presenting news requires higher standards of journalism, not lower.  Below is an edited version of the dialogue.

Q: With all the new investments in new technology and an animation team, will the public have to bear the costs?

A: We’re talking about 15 cents per video.  I don’t think people will mind the price they have to pay.  In fact the obstacle is: How convenient is it for me to pay this 15 cents?  I’ve always believed people are willing to pay the price. It’s just that it’s been too troublesome.  What you need to resolve is the troublesome nature of paying, rather than making people pay.  In the past, receiving payment has been a problem.  I’d need your address, your sex and age, your email address, your credit card number, expiry date and security code.  Around seven categories of information.  It takes, even the quickest of people, three minutes to enter all that in.  And you have to take your credit card out.  With our form of prepayment, you can go to a convenient store to purchase a recharge voucher.  It’s simple, like adding value to your Octopus.

Q: How will the new technology affect the future look of the newspaper?

A: That little barcode you see is effectively just a hyperlink.  We’re just putting a hyperlink on a non-electronic medium.  The newspaper is the most convenient because we have control over that.  People tell me that only in Japan will such a 2D barcode game work but I say it’s just that the time was not ripe for it.  It used to be really expensive to go online with your mobile phone, so even if you gave me a hyperlink it would be meaningless.  But now, it’s possible.

The greatest potential for this is outdoors.  Can you imagine the many campaigns you can do?  You can stick these 2D barcodes on lampposts and organize some kind of city treasure hunt.  For an advertiser, I would also be able to see, geographically, which users are where.  So that you can see 100 people beeping the barcode in Causeway Bay, but only 15 people in Mong Kok.

In the early stages, of course we have to do it with newspapers.  But in its future applications, I think we can go beyond the newspaper. 

Q: Is this new mode of news gathering a reflection of the changing attitudes to how they expect to get their news?

A: What I have learnt from the experience of the last few weeks is that there are different crowds.  Readers of newspapers are one crowd.  Those who go online for their news make up another crowd.  And it turns out that those who use mobile phones to watch film clips are the third crowd.  The overlapping population is extremely small. Hence it would be better for each individual medium to promote itself better.

The traditional newspaper will still exist.  At the end of the day, there are still people who spend four hours to eat a meal.  As long as these people still exist, then there will still be value in the newspaper.  But the standard will have to improve, to such a level that each day’s paper has to be a work of art.  At the end of the day, you cannot put a report with information of over 70 words into the format available on your mobile phone, and have people read it comfortably.  The mobile phone is not meant for you to read things from it.

Q: This new technology was launched in Hong Kong and Taiwan at the same time, but why do you think it has received such a controversial reaction there and not here?

A: To be honest it’s because the news in Taiwan is more sensational– Their crime and accident stories would have been enough for the front page for four or five days running here, but in Taiwan it might not be justified on the front page.

In Taiwan we also suffered for a week, when I thought to myself, ‘ok, we can only be patient for organic growth’.  That’s how we thought.  In the first few weeks, it was only discussed by those in the social media.  Then, after they started to discuss it more, there was a sudden critical moment, and there was a flip.  And all of a sudden we have a social phenomenon.  Observing it from close up, that flip can be violent, it was explosive.  It was like bus uncle.  But in Hong Kong, it just can’t seem to hit that critical mass.

Q: Traditionally, news have been sustained by providing a platform for advertisements, how does your new technology attract revenue from advertisers?

A: First, we want the audience to get used to the concept of pre-payment and points deduction.  Next, I want to start talking to advertisers. One possible model would be that those responding to your ads will get free credits.  For example, you answer a question or participate in a lucky draw, so when they respond to that, you give them some free credits.  And then I charge the advertiser.
There are some media models where they force you to watch an advert first, before the news.  With that, you never know if the reader even watched that ad.  They could have blanked it out and gone to get a coffee first, or check email.  My model is the opposite.  The advert should serve its own function, but appear on the same platform.   You’d be foolish to link the news content with the ad.  You shouldn’t harass your consumer with your ads.
Q: How does the need to produce animated film clips affect the composition and the working methods of the newsroom?

In the most extreme situations, we can do it in slightly over 2 hours, from the incident to the production of the clip.  It happens like this:  The reporter gathers the news, and then communicates with the ‘project manager’.  The ‘project manager’ online will begin mapping out the story board, checking with the report, ‘did it happen like this, then this, then this?’.  There will be some back and forth to check the facts.  This should take around ten minutes.  Then the story board will be assigned to different groups of artists.  Some of them will do completely different things.  For people who are not famous, we will have to draw them from fresh. Some will do some video processing to add things to the landscape.  Others will work on capturing the action.  There’s a lot of delegated work once the ‘project manager’ sends the story board out.  Video editing, sound, voice over, subtitles - they involves several dozen people, although a lot of them will be multi-tasking.  For example, the person doing the motion capture, he’d be doing around 300 or so sets of motion captures a day.

Q: Do you think this technology radically changes the working style of the reporter, and have you had any resistance?

A: Imagine that it was only today that someone invented the camera.  As a journalist, how would you use this new technology?  If someone only just gave you a camera today, society would have the same controversies.  It used to be you just had a pen and paper.  Then I gave you a camera.  Now I give you animation tools.
The challenge for the reporters has increased.  Now, I need you to tell me every detail, how the car, turning which way over which curve, hit what, the distance from the other car.  It’s like having you be the one in the government lab helping with the police – animation based on their kind of information would be great.  Of course, people will question, ‘are you doing it right, have you copied it accurately enough?’  That’s why journalists’ professional ethics are even more important now.  From the very beginning, the reason why journalism is a profession is because we all hold high standards for the truth.

Q: But what happens if the fact-finding process is not comprehensive enough?

A: It happens all the time.  If there are times when we don’t know what exactly happened, then we say what the possible scenarios are like.  So long as we say clearly these are just possible scenarios.  Like, ‘the incident can be explained in three ways’.  Some things are a puzzle, where you very diligently piece together a full picture.  With a mystery, there is always a missing piece.  If it is really a mystery, then you leave it to the area of fiction.  If it is a puzzle, then it is the journalist’s job to find the pieces.

With traditional electronic media, you can’t go wrong in recording the image.  But for us, we are recreating the situation. Therefore we rely totally on traditional newspaper reporters who gather information for us.  This is where the professional ethics comes into play.  The pressure is high because we are highly demanding. But I must confess that we had to add imagination to some missing links. Like the news in Taiwan that a Thai housekeeper robbed a taxi driver and found himself going nowhere because he does not know how to drive. We imagined that the Thai housekeeper could speak Mandarin.

Q: Who came up with this idea first?

A: In our company, the only person to come up with ideas is the big boss (Jimmy Lai).  In the very beginning, around four years ago, our boss started saying, ‘the things you write aren’t graphic enough, not enough storytelling.  You should re-think your writing skill’.  But it didn’t really work.  So next, we started drawing cartoons and adding pictures.  To put it simply, we have always had to find better ways of presentation, until one day he decided – ‘this is it, let’s go with animation’.