The Pudding

State of the Pudding, 2019

The following is an annual retrospective authored by Matt Daniels (2018 version here, 2016 here). It is directed to team members and subsequently reviewed and edited by them. In the spirit of transparency, we are releasing it publicly, though sensitive information has been removed.

Mar 2, 2019 · 10 min read

Selected Reading

The Pudding is two years old 🎉! By all measures, 2018 was a year of immense growth.

Editorial: Annual traffic was up 90%. We shipped 35 essays, 7 more than in 2017. The Structure of Stand-Up Comedy broke a staggering 12 minute average session duration, our highest ever. Human Terrain hit 1 million views.

Process: Team feedback improved a ton. We are far more candid with one another in work-in-progress. Our articles got weirder and we broke out of the 3 chart scrolly format. We successfully killed speed runs before it dragged on too long. Following our October retreat, we setup our mini-teams to address group decision-making and joint-accountability. We now have clearer domain over who owns what when it comes to non-editorial responsibilities.

Team: We met our hiring goal, bringing on Jan and Caitlyn to the team! We successfully took vacation in 2018, with each of us committing to 2 weeks. We completed a fellowship, testing a full-time editorial fellow as an alternative to an intern. We codified teammates’ personal goals and checked in on them regularly.

Subscribers: We’re halfway towards our followers/subscriber goal across our channels. While we didn’t formally setup a project manager for Patreon, contributions continue to flow in and we are now up to nearly $18,000/year in donations and had 437 unique patrons, including 1 corporate patron! We set up merchandise for patrons and also printed ourselves t-shirts and totes.

Finances: We opted to move away from equity-sharing to a more formal profit sharing, paying out bonuses that was roughly 17% of net-profit. This is actually a fairly good percent to benchmark ourselves against and I’m hoping to continue this in 2019. 2018 was also a big year for contributors, with $57,400 spent on Beatrice Jin, Durand D’souza, Andrew Thompson, Damar Aji Pramudita, Elle O’Brien, Josh Comeau, Jason Li, Charlie Smart, Sam Vickars, Malik Yusuf, and Jared Wilber. I’m really proud of our contributor pieces and I’m also aware that it also adds up to a full-time hire.

Client: We completed client work with YouTube, Zocdoc, Google Travel, Google News Lab, Elemental Excelerator, Havas/IBM, and Prudential.

Grants: While nothing materialized with grants, we did give Knight Foundation a solid attempt and realized that we have a good thing going with our current model. The fact that we dropped this effort and focused on editorial and client work helped us stay less distracted in 2018.

Recognition: We received awards from the Peabodys and Royal Statistical Society. Pockets made Flowing Data’s best of 2018 list. Four projects were shortlisted for IIB (Pockets, Parliament, Music Map, Clinics) and two bronze winners. DataStories called out The Pudding as best of 2018. Pockets made the NY Times Morning Edition Email.

Thank you team for helping achieve these milestones. We should be proud of what we’ve built from scratch since January 2017.

Last year, State of the Pudding included a number of goals, including hiring, subscribers, internships, vacation — plans to guide much of the year. This year, these aspirations should be managed by the mini-teams. For example, contributor diversity has been on folks’ minds and should be processed by the editorial team. A goal doesn’t need to be codified by me during this start-of-year document. I see my role as setting the long-term vision and identifying a handful of proposals to keep The Pudding on its mission (as well as financially solvent).

Entering year three, we’ve overcome the pains of launching. Our editorial process and team organization are running smoothly. Financially, we’ve hit a point where, save grants or a major client project, team size is stable. It’s a really interesting moment for me, carrying a sense of relief and also trepidation. Where do we go from here?

Why We’re Here

“Painting is just another way of keeping a diary.” — Pablo Picasso

For inspiration, I returned to the mission in last year’s State of The Pudding: we aimed for high-impact visual journalism, with the hopes of one day winning a Pulitzer.

While a noble pursuit, this mission created apprehension about The Pudding’s third year. Let’s not overlook that every newsroom has the same aspirations, but also that this mission is at odds with why The Pudding originally started.

When I was starting out, I was consumed by ideas. I wanted to make projects I was proud of and close the gap between my taste and what I was capable of producing. I’d keep iterating on the code until it “sang.” I look back on my work and see a creative diary of projects — the various eras of my intellectual obsessions. I worked on projects without an audience in mind, or to paraphrase one of my favorite videos, “paint like there’s nobody watching” (source).

“Remember that in order to recover as an artist, you must be willing to be a bad artist. Give yourself permission to be a beginner. By willing to be a bad artist, you have a chance to be an artist, and perhaps, over time, a very good one.” — The Artist’s Way

Folks sometimes ask me how they should learn — the books, the classes, the degrees they should pursue. I’ve always responded that nothing beats project-based learning. On essays where I had zero domain expertise, I always felt like I was learning on a deeper level, knowing that I’d have to eventually explain it publicly. But it also means your failures will be public. And you’ll look at your first attempts and wish they were better. When I reflect on those beginner projects, I see them as formative, even though they never resulted in copious traffic or earned IIB awards.

“What people always demand of a popular novelist is that he shall write the same book over and over again, forgetting that a man who would write the same book twice could not even write it once.” — George Orwell

Over the past three years, I found myself drifting from this original desire, beginning to seriously take stock in the community’s approval. I tried to redo past successes. I found myself thinking “this graphic will really impress the viz community.” Or I should do something “serious,” doubting the cultural projects to which I gravitated. I started to think of projects as, “What will people like?”

Last year, it permeated into our mission statement. The team should never be starting projects with “Can you make an article that has a lot of traffic?” Or “make something big.” Or “important.” Or “high-impact.”

The Pudding exists because we explore questions and document our journey visually. In 2019, I believe a beginner’s mindset will bring us closer to this original purpose.

There are three ideas for us to discuss as a group 1) Last Article Published, 2) Mini-team Projects, and 3) Habits, Even Over Goals.

Last Article Published

I feel the encroaching sense of a Pudding-worthy standard. I’ve even repeatedly heard it from prospective freelancers: “I really would like to do another piece for the Pudding sometime, I’ve just been rooting around trying to find the perfect concept.” My fear is that the perceived quality bar creeps higher, (whether its for Pudding work or our own work!), and we subconsciously pass on questions about which we’re passionate.

The 4–6 week timeline for essays might hold you back from making beginner, risky ideas. With that much time, we might 1) choose perfection on articles that do not need it, 2) pass on ideas that don’t seem worthy for the timeline allotted, or 3) create such an opportunity cost that the output has to be too good, and 4) design in such a way to avoid critique (or worse, elicit praise).

“Whenever Picasso learned how to do something he abandoned it, and as a result of that, in terms of his development as an artist, the results were extraordinary.” — Austin Kleon

It’s important that we all keep the beginner mindset, overcome our own filters, and find ways to be more prolific. As a team, I’m proposing for us to avoid no more than a 1 week gap between publishing (which doesn’t necessarily need to be what we historically think of as an article). You’ll hopefully be hearing me ask, “When was the last article published” a lot, and it will arguably be the theme for the year.

I imagine that getting there will take some creativity, such as constraining scope. Or leaning on our editorial assistants. Or every team member actively pitching freelancers. Or noticing new habits that the team should try. The ways that we might go about achieving this goal will undoubtedly require ideas from every one of us. We’ll have a session around experimentation so that I can better understand what this means to you, how you might bring it to life in your work, and ultimately craft a better proposal for the editorial mini-team.

  • This will officially end of June 1, when we’ll do a formal evaluation during our retreat.
  • The editorial team should solicit tensions on a bi-monthly basis from the team on how the process can be improved.
  • After editorial projects end, we will ask folks about their experience during post-mortem on whether the editorial process: Was enjoyable, Facilitated Learning, Helped or impeded your habits/goals.
  • We will create a single backlog of story-timed stories and ideas that might facilitate editorial.

Known future tensions: things folks have brought up as possible things to address — we’ll wait until they happen before writing policy.

  • Client-heavy periods will impede our ability to hit editorial goals
  • We want to avoid the feeling of publishing just to publish
  • Freelancer and editorial assistant budgets might need to be separated.
  • Freelancer stories often take months to execute.
  • Learning new skills might require longer editorial period.
  • Smaller projects have nowhere “to live.”
  • Smaller projects might not fit in our rubric.

Mini-team Projects

The above idea properly fits in the editorial mini-team, and I can imagine that there are other important projects we can take on across other mini-teams in 2019. Unlike last year, I’m not going to bring up grants, Patreon goals, subscriber goals, or contributor diversity goals. These are things that I’m leaving to the team (or I might address them in our existing mini-team process).

In our individual annual planning sessions, everyone mentioned how the mini-teams have been a huge improvement for our internal processes. The website and rebranding was a perfect example of what mini-teams have made possible, and projects like the website are exactly the sort of approach we need in 2019 — major efforts that the mini-team took and ran with.

It was a testament to the way we can collectively make improvements and allow mini-teams to be more self-reliant. We can keep that momentum in 2019: come to your mini-teams with tensions and proposals that you’re ready to own — it doesn’t have to be perfect, but rather just lead to a conversation. The idea around “last article published” is something that I’ve been thinking about as a way for our team to lower the stakes on essays and learn new things. I imagine that you have ideas on how we can get there as well — we’re too small of a team to not have people share what’s on their mind. The mini-team structure hopefully gives everyone the ability to take ownership of it.

During the next retreat, I’d like us to come together and reflect on these projects — your team should be building a backlog, either through tensions or a strategy brainstorm.

Habits, Even Over Goals

For the past year, we tried orienting around personal goals. This was a way to prioritize everyone’s personal development. When we’re growing, we’re more engaged with our work. Goals are great, but it can also create a pass/fail feeling when they’re not achieved. Alternatively, each of us can also write down the habits we want to build, and when we check-in together it’ll be much easier to discuss progress.

In order to help us grow creatively, consider the habits we should nudge each one another to follow with a team posture towards learning new skills, embracing beginner work, and greater output. We talk experimentation, but how does this actually manifest? We’ll review our habits every month, a regular reflection you’ve been bringing to life verses whether you checked the box on a goal (which is super motivating too!). Note that this is not tied to performance reviews or salary — this is a mission to help you develop creatively.

To sums things up, there’s a few things on our docket:

  1. We’ll discuss this document as a group. We will also roundtable what “last article published” means to you, how you might bring it to life in your work, and ultimately help me craft a better proposal for the editorial mini-team.
  2. Editorial team processes “last article published” proposal — remember, we operate in a world of safe to try!
  3. Mini-teams build backlog of strategy projects to address goals absent from State of the Pudding (this will be reviewed in the next retreat). Some of these goals might be informed by the purpose laid out in this doc.
  4. You create habits in addition to your personal goals, which will be discussed monthly. Habits might reflect a nod to exploring questions, experimentation, learning new things, etc.

Finally, this is not abdication to high-impact work. When you pursue good questions, your work will always have impact. There’s someone out in the world — one reader — who shares your passion for a question. You were likely one of those unique readers for someone else’s work. There’s a project from your past that really inspired you. The author used code, animation, and charts. You studied it. The visuals rewarded you as you invested more time. You perhaps read the article twice. Maybe you thought you could make something similar on topics meaningful to you, arguably changing your life.

And here you are today, because of that author’s dedication to telling a story visually.

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