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Quick and Easy Digital Timelines

The Knight News Innovation Lab at Northwestern offers free, interactive timeline tool

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March 29, 2012 | by Erin White
EVANSTON, Ill. --- An easy-to-use multimedia timeline tool, designed to help journalists tell complicated stories with pictures, video, maps and more, is the latest creation from the Knight News Innovation Lab at Northwestern University.

The tool, simply called Timeline, is available at KnightLabTimeline.com at no charge and is as simple to use as a Google Spreadsheet. Examples of Timeline can be found here.

“Timelines add significant depth to a story, giving each event context and continuity,” said Zach Wise, an associate professor of journalism at Northwestern University who developed Timeline. “Rich media can really help pull the viewer in.”

To create a customized timeline, users pull open-sourced content from websites such as Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Vimeo, Google Maps and SoundCloud, and then enter dates, headlines, captions and links to the sources into a spreadsheet. Timeline does the rest. The tool renders the timeline entirely in the browser and is easy to embed with just a few lines of Javascript on a website’s page.

“Our goal at the Knight Lab is to spur innovation in the way news is delivered, and putting a tool like this in the hands of content creators is a great way to engage online readers in multi-dimensional stories," said Michael A. Silver, executive director of the Knight Lab.

Timelines are particularly effective devices to tell stories that require deep background to understand, said Wise, who was previously an award-winning producer at The New York Times and contributed to a Pulitzer Prize-winning project while at the Las Vegas Sun. He offers these tips for creating compelling timelines:

  • Keep it short, and write each event as a part of a larger narrative.
  • Pick stories that have a strong chronological narrative.
  • Include events that build up to major occurrences. Not just the major events.

Timeline was developed as a project of the Knight News Innovation Lab, which is a joint project between the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications and the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University.