Sydney Morning Herald, Age drive subscriptions with multi-dimensional data visualisation

By Mark Stehle

The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, Nine Metro Publishing

Melbourne and Sydney, Victoria, NSW, Australia


Visual storytelling presents our journalism in new and stunning ways, and we know it drives readers to subscribe to The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

Stories such as Silent Skies, a feature about the grounding of the aviation industry during COVID-19, have been specifically highlighted in audience research projects as reasons people have signed up to pay.  Visual stories also appear regularly at the top of our dashboards, tracking which content readers consume before subscribing.

Our visual storytelling team works with reporters and editors to identify when their skills can elevate a story to the next level. It constantly innovates to take our audiences on a journey that traditional storytelling alone can not.

Two dramatic and important stories that depended on our ability to depict the full scale of events visually were the biggest flood in modern Australian history and a gold mine heist involving alleged mass murder.

This required bringing to life rich and disparate data in stunning spatial visualisations by using new 3D mapping and animation techniques.

An animated map in the story shows how flooding inundated the city of Lismore and affected properties.
An animated map in the story shows how flooding inundated the city of Lismore and affected properties.

Anatomy of the Lismore disaster

In late February 2022, the biggest flood in modern Australian history hit Lismore, New South Wales, and its surrounding region, leaving four dead and tens of thousands of people without homes, electricity, and access to fresh water. Just weeks later, Lismore was underwater again, and a fifth life was lost.

Using a trove of information and spatial imagery from international satellites, NASA, the weather bureau, Lismore council, the State Emergency Service, and the police, we were able to visually recreate the disaster by applying flood, terrain, hydrology, and weather data to digital elevation models and using spatial mapping to build 3D landscapes.

The visual reconstruction was threaded through a timeline of events, allowing our audience to easily understand how the flood unfolded. Readers could appreciate the scale and intensity of the horror experienced by those in Lismore and recognise official failures before the deluge and missteps during the flooding.

Blood Gold investigation

In the heat and dirt of northern Ghana, a Chinese company is accused of stealing millions in gold from a neighbouring Australian mine in a brazen heist, firing a “warning shot” that left dozens of locals dead.

Blood Gold was a complex investigation that North Asia correspondent Eryk Bagshaw and Ghanaian journalist Edward Adeti spent more than 18 months diving into. It was a story as layered as the mines involved and required innovative visualisations to depict what had unfolded in a way audiences could easily understand.

Our team sourced data from an independent surveyor’s dense technical report that included the use of a differential global positioning system and GSLAM infrared scanning, survey coordinates, and workers’ own experiences from within the mine’s tunnels. We applied the information to 2D maps and 3D giTF models that took the audience on a unique journey inside the illegal tunnels used to steal tens of millions of dollars worth of gold and take the lives of many local miners.

“Outstanding work”

Anatomy of the Lismore disaster was such an impressive account of the flooding it has been featured on the Web sites of the Australian Institute of Police Management and the Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre.

Some new subscribers specifically cited the story when signing up, while others sent feedback summed up by one as “outstanding work.” The story won Gold for the Places, Spaces and Environment category in the 2022 Information is Beautiful Awards.

It received more than 100,000 pageviews, and our readers spent four times longer on the story than the average engaged time.

The Blood Gold investigation was the first time a visual recreation of the events was created. Post-publication, the team received high praise from the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining at The University of Queensland, as well as a request to share the techniques used in the mapping and mine graphics.

Blood Gold was viewed just under 250,000 times, and again readers spent nearly four times longer on the story than the average engaged time.

Our immersive visual storytelling techniques elevated already meticulously researched stories to become two unforgettable features that gave a digital life to events, capturing the interest and attention of our audience beyond conventional journalism.

About Mark Stehle

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