Words are not enough — using sharp visual elements to create stories worth consuming

“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.

Source: Author’s analysis of New York Times Innovation reports

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.

Source: New York Times 2020 Report

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.

Create visuals economically and with fewer designers by leveraging automation and economies of scale

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.

Moreover, all charts can either be directly embedded into articles, or can be downloaded as SVGs for use in static graphics in print. An example of this is shown below. On the left, you see the interactive web version. On the right, you see the print graphic created after it was exported as an SVG.

We used machine-generated graphics to create significant economies of scale across print, digital, and video

Another example below shows a web version on the left, and the print counterpart that used multiple exported SVGs on the right.

And as icing on the cake — they can also be used for creating analysis videos for web and TV (example below) without incurring additional costs.

Not only does automation and software-enabled visualization reduce costs, it also enables journalists to focus on great storytelling that connects the dots instead of scrambling to get data at the last minute. And mostly importantly — it gives readers visually relevant, value-added stories to look at.

Why machine-drawn visualizations matter in a multi-platform world

It’s worth highlighting that visuals for mobile are fundamentally different from those for Desktop and print. While graphics designed for print often work well on Desktop, they tend to fail completely on mobile. For instance, a great print graphic (shown below on the left) can fail completely on mobile (shown below on the right).

Visualizations that work great in one medium can totally fail on other mediums (like mobile)

This is the kind of problem that responsive software-driven visualizations are great at solving. A static graphic (like the one on the left) cannot be automatically resized based on a device’s size. But a machine-drawn graphic (like the one on the right) is automatically resized for optimal viewing — no matter the device size.

Machine-generated graphics can sovle the

How interactivity can be used to create digitally native delight

Quick, semi-automated graphics are a great way to keep users happy as they consume day-to-day news. But publishers can occasionally go the extra mile to truly delight users (and increase their proclivity to become paid subscribers).

For instance, Reuters did a wonderful interactive of Delhi’s pollution levels that combined users’ scrolling behaviour, photos, and trends in data.

Similarly, Times of India made the Modi Meter– an interactive based on New York Times YouDrawIt. Interactives like this and others contribute to millions of pageviews for the site.

Moving forward

Multiple tests have shown that users love graphics, and trailblazers like The Economist and the New York Times have shown publishers a clear way to operationalize them. Graphics are a low hanging fruit that can radically drive up user engagement while keeping costs low — and publishers have to start acquiring capabilities (either by inhousing or by working with external vendors) to integrate graphics more closely with their day-to-day operations.

I’m a tech startup founder, human-optimisation junkie, and machine learning enthusiast living in Singapore. Hope you found this post useful. Do leave a note on Twitter (rishdotblog) or email me at rishabh@loki.ai to give feedback, or just say hi! :)

Founder at Loki.ai

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