Who needs an artist? Tips for using Google maps for news stories


In a review of more than a hundred news pages produced by the members of the Alberta Weekly Newspapers Association, at whose conference I was invited to speak this weekend, I noticed more than a few stories that would greatly have benefitted from a map placing the reader at the scene of the news. Stories about the most dangerous intersections in town … six sites chosen for possible community garden … town budget identifies $36 million in projects.

All of these headlines immediately suggest graphic possibilities, but none as published contained a graphic. It would be great if every staff had an artist (or more) to assist with such things, but smaller publications have to sometimes make do with spit and savvy. I remade several of the layouts very quickly to illustrate how even a reporter or editor could help create a graphic for the newspaper – you don’t always need an artist on staff to tell these kinds of stories in visual ways. Here’s a look inside one of the remakes presented, and the ins and outs of using Google Maps to create these visuals:


As I’ve chided my clients for years, pull quotes have their place, if they are dynamic, provocative, essential. If they are routine, dull, boring, or are used as “filler” or worse, “art” – get rid of them and consider the alternative. Either a glance box as I’ve suggested elsewhere on this blog, or if appropriate, an informational graphic such as a map. But what if you have no artist on staff?? No worries. Google Maps to the rescue (once you have a smart content idea  in hand, of course).

I quickly did a Google Maps search for the town of Edson, where this story was published, and for the sake of instruction, created a quick map of the sort that might be considered for similar stories in the future. Here’s that quick draft I created, just for the purposes of our discussion:

Screen Shot 2014-01-25 at 9.49.50 PM

As expected, I was asked in the presentation, is it OK to use Google Maps in our publication? It certainly is. Google has plenty of info online regarding this, start with their Permission Guidelines for Google Maps and Earth. But essentially, you can’t embellish the map image (add trees or clouds or such) and you must credit Google and any third party supplying their imagery. Read more about their attribution requirements here.

The end result (with a revised headline) could look something like this:

Screen Shot 2014-01-25 at 10.00.16 PM

The main question to ask when you are out reporting  story, or further down the line during editing, is: what’s the “show me” angle of this story, if there is one? How can we visualize this, rather than tell it in words? Is there a way to let the reader find the ME in this story more quickly (in this case, helping them answer the most obvious question: are any of the sites near my house or place of work)?

Finally, as with glance boxes, creating a template to be used for all these graphics will help speed up production and minimize headaches. Always consider a headline and explainer text that “sets the scene” for what the reader is about to view. For any overlaid images, consider numbering or other icons that puts the news in place; further explanatory text can be placed nearby if relevant.

To inquire about my  schedule or availability for speaking engagements – for professional organizations, universities or private media clients – email ron (at) ronreason.com. To see a partial list of speaking topics, link back to my website here. 

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1 Comment

  1. Shane

     /  April 18, 2014

    Hi. Great blog.
    About using Google Maps for purposes like this — would you just grab it with the print screen button or do you have a technique for higher-res images? Thanks.

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