This story is a part of a larger series on a playbook for digital publishers
Jul 22, 2019
“The most poorly read stories, it turns out, are often the most “dutiful” — incremental pieces, typically with minimal added context, without visuals and largely undifferentiated from the competition. They frequently do not clear the bar of journalism worth paying for.” – New York Times 2020 Report (published in 2017)
A salient feature of the remarkable turnaround of the New York Times has been its focus on visual journalism. While outlets like The Economist have always created visually striking charts and graphs, the Times has — over the last 5 years in particular — addressed visual storytelling with renewed vigour. A cursory reading of its 2014, 2015, and 2017 Innovation Reports shows the organization’s increasing prioritization of visual storytelling. The data bears this out.
In 2019, I could not find many stories published by the New York Times (or, for that matter, the Wall Street Journal) that did not have relevant charts, photos, maps, or illustrations embedded in them.
This is the result of deliberate actions. The Times had prioritized visual storytelling in its internal reports, and has continued to move steadily in a more visual direction.
“When we ran a story in 2016 about the roiling debate over subway routes in New York, a reader mocked us in the comments for not including a simple map of the train line at the heart of the debate … Our reporters lack the proper training to embed visuals contextually, and our content management system makes the placement of visuals an afterthought.” – New York Times 2020 Report (published in 2017)
But while the Times has moved in the right direction, most Asian publishers have not. This is not because of a lack of desire. Practically every editor and journalist wants her stories to be imbued with graphics. Operationalizing this is far from straightforward. But as the quote below shows — the challenges that the New York Times faced in 2017 are not too different from the ones that Asian publishers face today.
Reporters, editors and critics are eager to make progress here, and we need to train and empower them. “If every desk had someone who could produce a nimble graphic, and people didn’t need special ‘keys’ to make a simple chart or a map, we could get a lot more done. It’s sort of demoralizing to know that your story could be stronger with the help of a graphic, but to also know that you will probably receive no help with it.” – New York Times 2020 Report (published in 2017)
The biggest reason for the lack of sufficient visuals in Asian publications is that Asian publishers use different tools to create visualizations for print, TV, and the Web. This leads to a bloated cost structure and unnecessary turf wars.
Often, the teams that work on one platform (say, designers who use a suite of Adobe tools to create visualizations for print) do not have the capability to create visualizations for another platform (say, responsive charts for the web). Furthermore, many exceptional graphic designers for print do no have the skills to create visualizations for the web.
Newsrooms can resolve this dilemma by using centralized and automated visualization and research tools that help them create graphics across print, digital, and video. They can either create these tools in-house (like what the New York Times, the Washington Post, Reuters, and others have done) or use SaaS solutions provided by external vendors.
Publishers can gain enormous economies of scale by automating data acquisition and visualization. At Loki.ai, we developed tools for the Indian market that automatically collect thousands of metrics — pollution levels, election results, commodity prices, economic indicators, and more as soon as they come out.