Hong Kong billionaire Jimmy Lai has a plan to save the news, and it doesn't involve paying freelancers $2 to write stories about whatever people are Googling, or pitting the city desk against the local symphony's bassoon section in a bid for foundation dollars. Instead, he's sticking with an approach publishers have used for centuries: Go heavy on crime. Go heavy on sex. Go heavy on celebrity scandals. And if a 73-page police interview transcript involving a masseuse's allegations that Al Gore assaulted her in a Portland hotel room surfaces, don't settle for a text-based summary that references a few of the weirdest passages behind the word "allegedly." Make an animated video out of it!
Lai has been in the print news business for 15 years, publishing a handful of tabloids in Hong Kong and Taipei. But he apparently anticipates a day when even photos of car crashes and semi-naked models will seem too much like reading. In 2007 Lai invested $30 million to create an animation studio. For two years, its approximately 200 staffers devised workflow systems and built up a digital library of 3D objects, and in September 2009 the company, known as Next Media Animation (NMA), started producing clips for Lai's Apple Daily websites. It can create these short clips, which typically combine animation sequences with photos, video, and voice-overs, in as little as two hours. The results resemble a cross between Inside Edition and The Sims.
In December 2009, NMA scored its first big hit: a dramatization of Tiger Woods' car crash. The clip includes two versions of the accident. The first follows the official police report narrative, while the second features sensational but unconfirmed allegations lifted from a TMZ.com story, with Woods' wife Elin Nordegren slapping him in the face then chasing him with a golf club.
"That Tiger Woods animation was very entertaining, but it was nothing approaching journalism," Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz complained to CNN World in February. "It didn't look like journalism. It didn't smell like journalism. It didn't feel like journalism. So let's not confuse a bunch of cartoons with what people in the news business do."
The video game aesthetics and occasional comic touches of NMA's clips may seem more suited to satire than rigorous reporting. But the animations' intent—to vividly portray incidents that weren't documented firsthand—has plenty of precedent in the news business. In the 1920s, a short-lived tabloid called the New York Graphic published images it called "composographs." A staffer there, Harry Grogin, hit on the idea of cutting up multiple photographs and using their parts to depict a scene as it allegedly occurred.
Grogin's initial inspiration was a divorce trial involving a New York socialite who'd married a domestic servant of mixed-race parentage. To prove that the socialite, Kip Rhinelander, must have known his wife was "colored" before he married her, the court compelled her to disrobe before the jury. With photographers excluded from the scene, Grogin hired a chorus girl to pose as Alice Rhinelander, took the photo, then combined it with 19 other photos to create an image of Mrs. Rhinelander revealing herself in the courtroom. According to Kenneth Kobre's Photojournalism: The Professional's Approach, the single image boosted the Graphic's circulation "from around 60,000 to several hundred thousand readers." The composograph was a mainstay of the tabloid's coverage thereafter.
In the 1960s and '70s, reporters working under the rubric of New Journalism used interviews with secondary sources, written documents, and their own imaginations to present detailed, highly descriptive, and ostensibly nonfiction accounts of scenes they didn't witness personally. In using composite characters, in recreating dialogue they hadn't actually heard, in portraying their subjects' interior lives, these stylistic innovators, often lionized as some of journalism's greatest practitioners, paved the way for America's Most Wanted and now NMA.
While most of NMA's media attention has stemmed from the Gore and Woods cartoons, the company has produced more than 2,000 clips in its first 10 months in operation, with many featuring imagery far more gruesome than a belligerent and vaguely Al Gore–like creature trying to coerce a reluctant masseuse into giving urgent attention to his adductors. Blood spurts across the screen as a murderer chops off one victim's head. Another killer rips out his victim's heart then sets it on fire.
While some NMA critics find its approach too fanciful and careless, the company has also prompted complaints that it depicts events with too much fidelity. In June, for example, police in Britain demanded that YouTube remove an NMA animation depicting the murder of a local woman. "The film is very graphic and exactly as it is alleged to have happened and must be absolutely horrendous for the families involved," a friend of the victim told the Bradford Telegraph & Argus.
NMA's animations achieve their sense of verisimilitude by being so obviously fake. A live-action program that re-enacts crimes would never show anything as explicitly. A TV news magazine, or even a satirical show like Saturday Night Live, would be reluctant to show a real human stand-in for a handsy Al Gore unless the charges against him were more convincingly substantiated. Using 3D simulations provides a degree of latitude—it's not a real person whose body is being decapitated; it's a cartoon. Things that couldn't otherwise be shown can be shown. And thus, paradoxically, we get what ends up feeling like the "real" story instead of some approximation that has been bowdlerized in the name of good taste or legal caution.
But can we ever trust cartoons to impart well-researched information? We already do in courtrooms, using them to recreate auto accidents, homicides, mechanical failures, and medical procedures. If we can trust artistic depictions when the stakes include prison sentences and million-dollar settlements, why not deploy them when reporting the news?
Even when NMA is basing animations on allegations, it doesn't get every detail right. In the Woods clip, the reckless golfer is shown driving a minivan rather than the Cadillac Escalade he actually crashed. NMA also presents moments of pure artistic invention. In the Gore animation, the ex-veep howls like a crazed poodle, and when he gets really angry, clouds of white smoke pour out of his ears. (In real life, of course, Gore's temper is fueled by emissions-free solar power.)
But if NMA's version of animated news doesn't yet smell quite like traditional journalism, it still has the potential to be revolutionary. While TV supplanted newspapers as America's primary news source in the 1970s, that medium has always been plagued by an overreliance on talking heads. Lacking anything more compelling than hot blondes reading clipped copy in stentorian voices, TV news resorts to endless visual filler—burning buildings, airplane wreckage, ridiculously complicated title graphics—that add little context or illumination. With animation, you can illustrate exactly how Dick Cheney's new heart pump works. You can recreate the nightclub rampage that led to Andy Dick's latest arrest. The news becomes clearer and more factual, more expressive and compelling, more embodied, more three-dimensional.
Which may explain why organizations as diverse as Reuters, the BBC, and the Cartoon Network have been paying NMA big bucks to produce content for them. Legacy media outlets like these aren't the first places you think of when you hear the phrase journalistic innovation. But perhaps this is the most interesting aspect of the NMA approach to news: The end product isn't easy for a guy in his pajamas to replicate or co-opt. Producing 20 short clips a day requires a sizable staff and a freewheeling billionaire to foot the bill. So barriers to entry still exist. You can still create content that can't be instantly commoditized. And yet the product feels forward-thinking and completely geared to Web sensibilities.
Take a deep whiff of that, Mr. Kurtz! Animated news snuff may be the last best chance for our most trusted news brands to survive.
Contributing Editor Greg Beato (email@example.com) writes from San Francisco.