The State of The Pudding, 2018

Dec 26, 2017 · 12 min read

I wrote this as an internal guide to the next 12 months at The Pudding (with input from the team). In the spirit of transparency, we opted to make it public. It’s also, in many ways, a sequel to The Journalist-Engineer from 2015, a semi-manifesto for the work behind Polygraph.

What are we doing?

My best answer to this question: imagine fast forwarding to the end of our journey. We published visual journalism that made history and had a high impact on culture.

High-impact work isn’t necessarily about climate change or world peace. Snowfall was about an avalanche in Washington. Nicky Case’s oeuvre is helping the world understand systems. Even the hip hop vocabulary project taught a world of data-apathetic music nerds about statistics.

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Snow Fall, the seminal NY Times Viz

There’s something that unites the aforementioned projects.

Over the summer, I read a book called Creativity, Inc. (the story of Pixar). It references Steve Jobs’s fascination with “the nobility of entertaining people” (he partially owned the company). He knew that Apple’s products would eventually end up in a landfill, but the films would live on forever.

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Creativity, Inc., how Pixar
organized around creativity

Sometimes I look at the NY Times’ and WaPo’s visual work and wonder the same thing: all the genius put into a piece that’s against a rushing news cycle, only to have it end up in the Internet landfill.

Yet, I’m not suggesting we go make evergreen content. A Pixar film is far more than talking toys in a hero’s journey. Jobs knew that a film could reveal deeper truths. There’s something beyond the surface (likely missed by kids) that’s worth dissecting. One day, I hope my projects do the same: reveal deeper truths without a 24 hour half-life.

In the past, I’ve said that our work drives “water-cooler discourse.” I think this was close, but connotes small-talk banter. What I really mean: we work on ideas that are complex enough to debate.

The Pudding explains debatable ideas, especially ones where TL;DR prose can’t. Pick any topic in the political realm: the “other-side” can’t make it through an article without crying, “fake news!” And, in some ways, it’s true! Reporting facts are damn hard when you’re limited to prose. Every number has fractal-level complexity.

What we can do with animation, code, and illustration is still uncharted territory — hell that’s why Bret Victor has all of these posts philosophically speculating what could be possible. Or why we might wonder why there haven’t been more Snow Falls.

How do we measure high-impact, visual journalism? Over the past several months, I keep coming back to “win a Pulitzer.” I can imagine a world where data analysis, research, and visual communication would truly be groundbreaking when held up to prose-based reporting. The Pulitzer metric is compelling because, to date, it rarely goes to visual journalism*.

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The viz intro to Failure Factories did win a Pulitzer, though it was a prologue to a longer series. “What Went Wrong” won from the Miami Herald in 1992 for their work on Hurricane Andrew, which included several print visualizations. *I initially wrote this as “never happened before,” which is true of modern, interactive viz but arguably the Miami Herald’s work is damn close.

But that’s not everyone’s metric. It might be “go viral.” Or change the minds of one person in power. Or get our work in front of a president (Joe Biden saw the film dialogue project, for what it’s worth).

At the end of every year, I want to check in with the team and ask one question: Are we one step closer to creating visual journalism that’s had a lasting impact on culture?

A big part of this equation is people. There are 3 places where talent is germinating: 1) academia, 2) journalism, and 3) moonlighters (Neil Halloran, Tony Chu). There’s a big temptation to woo the all-stars — a “super team” of sorts. In theory, it sounds great, but it assumes we even know what we want (and generally, the super team strategy is far from bullet-proof). What keeps me up at night is how we keep people fulfilled. If we hire smart people who are passionate about our purpose, they’ll work harder and learn faster than anyone else.

That means The Pudding has to be the best place to do that work — an upgrade from going independent or joining a newsroom. The Pudding’s structure and community needs to feel like a creative catalyst.

Which means our environment should feel financially sustainable. Our investment in Patreon, sponsorship, and grants will be important for 2018 (further described in sections below). The “sky is falling” feeling of financial ruin may create urgency, but it doesn’t facilitate creative risk-taking.

Technology will be a part of that equation too. Russell’s Scrollama is exactly that: tools to make the stories you want to tell.

And that high-impact work — it means we have to make some tough decisions about the team and what the process looks like.

How we get there

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to achieve our purpose, and I’ve been noticing better ways for making high-impact visual journalism. For the past few years, I’ve come to value:

Client Work
When it’s purpose-aligned (see above) and in our rubric, client work can be a beautiful thing. One of the hardest parts of our creative process is the turn from making-it-for-yourself to making-it-for-an-audience, and client work forces working-in-public and urgency. It’s no coincidence that all of my favorite projects had a client (or an external party guiding the work). And something like our major 2018 client [redacted] project, with its clear creative constraints (limitations are creative gold!), could be the impetus for groundbreaking work. I’m proud that we decided to take it on.

This project, one of my favorites, was done with Billboard

That said, client work has its downsides, and we need to be vigilant in agreeing to projects that allow us to hone our technical and storytelling skills, while also making fiscal sense. Unless we’re running ~$[redacted]/wk, we might as well be doing it for free.

If we’re going to come anywhere near our goal of high-impact visual journalism, we’ll start things that fail. This was a real mind-fuck for me to get my head around: do things that might not end up anywhere.

Yet, I think that’s the line that separates us from other organizations out there, from newsrooms to agencies: no one is going to gamble on weird, ambitious ideas if they have to ship. When your audience is “America,” it has to be accessible. And that means you’re going to pass up ambitious topics.

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i.e., the tension between making it perfect and telling the world you’re alive

This isn’t just structural, but personal. For anyone who’s had a viral hit on the Internet, creative anxiety is a real thing. I might be telling you to take risks, but the little voice in your head is trying to replicate your past successes. You got here taking risks, and now you’re a prisoner to your own work.

From a process standpoint, this is a doozy. It’s easy to say that we experiment, but in reality there’s serious performance/job-security pressure to publish work. The team might wonder (or ask) at every update, “Why isn’t Matt shipping anything? He’s been working on that essay forever and we haven’t released a thing in weeks…”

Which is why for 2018, we’re going to focus on an output cadence that allows for experimentation. Each of us is accountable for, 5 days a week, pushing work forward, but not necessarily shipping it. At minimum, I will be nudging the team to take more risks and spend more time on perfecting their work.

With our reader-driven business model (Patreon, grants, sponsorship), we do need to ship essays. Without it, we haven’t built a sustainable business model. Moreover, if our teammates don’t ship public work, they’ll lose creative motivation. Seeing our work publish is, ultimately, the only way we’ll achieve our purpose. A successful out-in-the-wild project is like creative oxygen (and quite validating!).

Experimentation and shipping are constantly in tension, so we’ll need to have folks responsible for managing editorial pipeline and deadlines.

The Pudding Is a Collective
Each team member needs to have an identity that they’d otherwise cultivate independently. We succeed when every person feels like they’re not just a cog in the visual essay machine. You don’t just get a byline, but a “release” on The Pudding.

Often, this is the compromise when freelance authors join an agency, newsroom, or corporation: an individual voice. Vox’s Carlos Waters, the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, Grantland’s Shea Serrano: these journalists have blossomed in their media orgs. And the level of identity and autonomy they received means they’re less likely to leave.

Autonomy and Teaming
Autonomy sounds like a dream. Creative people do not care for large hierarchies/bureaucracies, where decisions are made top-down and by consensus. They want to build their own mountain from scratch. And the more we dial-up autonomy, the more we’ll be attractive to free agents currently living their best life on their own.

We’re going to trust everyone’s storytelling instincts. This team is brilliant, so we’ll stand back and give you room.

Yet I’ve come to find that good ideas are challenged. They’re tested. We’re seduced by a creative process that spans many late nights, in a vacuum, and ends with a big curtain reveal. At some point, you need to pivot from writing for yourself to writing for an audience. Where you once could see the forest, you now only see the trees. Or maybe your ideas on the page don’t work or will never work. You likely have lost some empathy with the reader. The team is your sanity check for whether the music you’re playing is just in your head or actually on the page.

The Pudding — this collective — helps you find that voice. Creativity is not a solitary endeavor. Authors: you need to get good at sharing your problems. And team: you need to get good at giving feedback (which is difficult as hell). If authors feel like the feedback process is a self-inflicted attack, they’ll never share in public. And if the team feels too intimidated to give honest feedback, no one will ever speak up. This does not mean that your work must meet certain standards and be “approved” by someone in charge. But the editing process (and editor) has a role, and we should embrace it.

Confession: the only reason I scrollytell is because I saw Tony Chu’s machine-learning article and lost my shit. Technology opens possibility. That was 2.5 years ago. And now Russell is the king of scroll libraries. Our work will get better when it gets easier. Which means we need to be investing in tools that make everyone better (also another reason for folks to stay). When we build tools that start with one user (ourselves), we fill a better void than anyone hacking away at tools for general consumer adoption.

Paying-it-forward Blog Posts
We’ve been writing blog posts and public tutorials, and it may seem like they don’t fit into this equation. But I think they do.

While these posts might not have a big reach in terms of page views, they go a long way for whether a would-be visual journalist is open to giving $1/month on Patreon.

We also stand on the shoulders of giants. The folks behind D3 committed countless days to coding it. Jim Vallandingham’s force-directed diagram tutorial is one of the reasons why I can even code. It’d be almost immoral to not pay it forward to the community.

2018 Goals

First, let’s review some on the salient problems we’re trying to solve in 2018. For each section, we’ve agreed on a goal (I’ve also written this goal in past-tense—a sorta Jedi mind trick to ground it in reality).

Financial sustainability
Client work has helped bridge our cash flow, but it isn’t predictable. So we have our safe-to-try business model experiments: Patreon, sponsorship, and grants.

Which means an ambitious goal for 2018: 1,000 Patreon subscribers (funding freelance content), 100,000 subscribers (Twitter, email, Facebook, Instagram — we’re currently at 39K), and a $100K+ grant. I’m particularly excited about the Patreon goal, as it has an additional benefit of creating urgency/feeding-the-beast (we need to keep our subscribers happy!).

Editorial Pipeline
In 2017, we focused on 1 essay per week. In 2018, our challenge is how to prioritize. When should we pressure people to ship? How do we allow for experimentation?

We need to continue to set an output goal. First it sets an expectation that we need to ship something. We’re not going to be financial sustainable (let alone achieve our purpose) if publishing falls off a cliff. I’m already observing a certain artificial quality bar developing. Everyone one of us began doing this work solo, on the Internet, without a little voice in our head telling us it doesn’t meet a supposed Pudding standard. This happens to everyone: from musicians to writers to Wait But Why.

At the end of 2018, we will have published, at minimum, 16 articles (assuming our current team size and excluding freelancers). That’s roughly 4 per quarter, which means that we all have a great deal of latitude to experiment and fail.

In 2018, retreats happened roughly every four months, with the first trip in late January. This will give us a chance to improve our creative collective’s process, hack on projects together, and reset from the stress of autonomous creative work.

Team Happiness
It’s very easy for the organization’s goals to supersede our own. But we’re never going to retain people if they feel like they’re not personally growing/learning. In 2018, we shared personal goals, so that we can 1) hold you accountable, 2) mentor better, and 3) keep people happy.

Mandated Vacation/Sabbaticals/Skill Weeks
I’ve noticed this year that people are not taking time off. I’m not entirely shocked: I’ve worked for 10 years and probably never took time off if it didn’t involve a big trip. And if you never plan big trips, you never take time off.

In 2018, each person took, at minimum, 2 weeks (excluding sick days, national holidays) in 2018, either on vacation, sabbatical, or doing a skill week. We will check in, hold you accountable, and make sure it happens.

External Fellowships/Rotationals
One benefit of going freelance/solo is an opportunity to try new things. I’ve seen countless 12-week fellowships that’d be so interesting to do (and there’d be a ton of process experience that I could take back to The Pudding), yet I feel “tied down.”

Everyone of us can apply for these short-term gigs, and you’ll keep your benefits but go on short-term unpaid leave.

In order to meet our subscriber goal, we’re going to have to invest in the subscribers and rewards. I’m not sure what that is quite yet, so one person was accountable for metrics in 2018, leading brainstorms and strategy sessions on ideas, as well as PM’ing the team to make sure we’re executing on them.

This came up during [redacted]’s interview process, and it hasn’t been a priority in 2017. That said, I do think we can make that shift in 2018. If this is truly a collective, it needs to have distributed ownership. I really admire Buffer’s model, which allows each person to choose whether they want to take on risk (i.e., equity) or just take the money (i.e., salary). In Q1 2018, I took this on and had a plan ready by start of Q2 2018.

We brought our team size to, at minimum, 5 in 2018. This will allow us to continue to specialize, developing a stronger team feedback/support system, and distribute the task captain roles.

I’ve also noticed that proven freelancers might not want to come in for just one project — they seek financial stability and support. They want to feel part of a network, even if it’s just for 12 weeks. We publicly created fellowship roles for proven folks (kinda like we’d take on ourselves in the external fellowship section).

And the same goes for internships: in the past, we’ve looked for basically proven freelancers who’d be down to intern. The problem is that I think our best talent prospects are all opportunity, not experience. We’re now trying to find people who are passionate about this space and have the raw skills and ambition to learn. In 2018, we offered internships to unproven folks (i.e., we focus on opportunity, not experience).

One of the problems I’ve noticed with freelancers is that we’re way too risk-averse. I am basically risk-loving, willing to take on a freelancer because the fallout isn’t as dramatic, knowing the financial implications.

In early 2017, we said we would allow each of us to manage a quarterly freelance budget. In 2018, we brought this back, enforcing and measuring it.

And for the Q1, we’re going to track our experiments and the things we learned to get to our output goal.

I’m so excited for this journey, and I’m truly humbled by one year of The Pudding (it’ll hit 1 year on January 20th).

Here’s to next year.

Interested in working with us? Hit me up:

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