How we stopped making all graphics by hand and started printing from our graphics toolbox
…and took one giant leap forward in our digital transformation.
One of the fairly unique things about the graphics team at NZZ Visuals is that we’re responsible for all graphics published on the online and print platforms. What has made our job exponentially easier over the years is our chart tool Q, developed by the Editorial Tech team. Q allows editors and reporters to create their own graphics and maps, embed them in their stories and hit “publish” without much discussion.
Should that graphic also need to be in our print edition, the graphics team recreates it from scratch with our print styles and sizing guidelines. This is redundant to say the least, but it does ensure that we have an extremely high quality print product.
These days, NZZ, like many other newsrooms, is taking a hard look at how we can move toward a more digital-first approach to all of the content we create. One key aspect here is getting rid of redundancies. Over the last year we’ve transitioned a few departments to a digital-first production process: all content is prepared by the authors first for the online platform and is then later edited and adapted by the production team for print. This shift in the editorial staff gave us the opportunity to tack on a project we’ve been thinking about for a long time: exporting ready-to-print graphics from Q. 🙀
The idea of making a graphic just once in Q and having some magic happen to export a PDF following print style guidelines was stewing in our minds for a long time. Part of the reason it wasn’t one of the first features implemented in Q is because of this goal we set for ourselves: Q should export print-ready graphics so that they never have to touch the desk of a designer before publication. We didn’t want to open them again in Illustrator to adjust any small design details and have to reexport.
A newsroom in transition was our opportunity and through this time we were able to get a few very important people onboard to help push this project over hurdles throughout the company. Q-to-Print is not as simple as writing some code to add a feature in our toolbox, it required process changes to a lot of people’s daily business as well as good, clean communication.
Because Q-to-Print at the time of writing this is still in the first month of roll out, we wanted to document both the process leading up to the rollout and the pain points along that journey up to now.
Our goal was to reduce the daily business of the graphics team while still achieving the quality expectations of the print product. The desired result in the longterm is to continue shifting the focus of the graphics team away from service desk tasks and toward our strong suit: long tail visual storytelling.
By making Q the main facilitator for all graphics (online and print), we increase its visibility across editorial and production departments. With more people using Q, the toolbox will inevitably grow with other tools and features, improving exponentially over time.
We framed the project into a three-month OKR starting in July with a scheduled rollout of the last week in September.
🚦 Big Names Give Green Light
As soon as our OKR was approved (including Editor in Chief) we formed a team. The core team consisted of Tech Lead Beni Buess, Project Manager Cordula Braun, Development and Tech Lead Tom Schneider and myself, Head of Graphics. Further additions along the process included Designer Balz Rittmeyer, Art Director Reto Althaus, Visuals Department Head David Bauer, representatives from other departments and the production team.
🛠 Make it Actually Work
Beni Buess wrote a nice article about the complexity of image data types and color spaces and how just exporting whatever and printing it isn’t quite all there is to do. Aside from that behind-the-scenes journey, we needed to implement a simple interface for the export feature. This interface needed to contain options for the details that the graphics team often needed to change in order for the chart to fit in the layout. Examples including choosing a specific column width or altering the wording in a title.
👩🏻🏭 Seemless Type Transition to Test
All of our charts in Q have definitions for type style, size and spacing as do all of our print graphics. However, all of those definitions aren’t 1:1. For example, in print we have a size definition for the source and another for the footnote. Online they are the same definition. Part of that difference comes from legacy print styles that until now, we never saw reason to change.
Once we finalized those definitions, Q now knew what to do with titles, subtitles, axis labels and so on when we ask it to take on an online graphic and adjust it for print. From there, we exported a range of graphics from our toolbox and prepared them to be layout-ed in a test print of the paper. Once we shipped that, we just had to wait for the results:
Okay, so there were a few things that needed to be adjusted after the test print but by and large the results were a success. Now that we had the test paper, we could walk it around to stakeholders and collect their reactions.
🙋🏻♀️ Talk it Up
One of the ominous challenges in a transitional newsroom is when you have the role of communicating a change. Q-to-Print affects some people in the editorial staff more than others but it affects everyone a little bit.
- Journalists and editors no longer need to interface with the graphics team to request a print version of simple graphics.
- Department desks don’t need to interface with the graphics team about changing size or content details in the graphics.
- The print production team now generate the final graphics from Q and place them directly into the layout.
- The graphics team is relieved of the regeneration work of simple charts and can slowly dissolve the roughly 40 hours of work required for this task each week in order to invest that time in work that creates more value.
- The proofreading team no longer has to proofread and correct graphics twice (once for online, once for print) and no longer has to interact with the graphics team to request those changes.
We are proud that Q-to-Print doesn’t really generate more work for any of the people affected by it. Nevertheless, a change always has a phase where everything feels like more work. Ways we tried to mitigate this feeling:
- Talk about it all of the time to everyone. And talk about it in a way that it highlights how much more resources (money, time) we gain by implementing this. It’s tech magic that shouldn’t be scary.
- Offer tutorials, workshops or one-on-one time with anyone using Q for the first time and everyone using the new feature for the first time. In those environments we’re able to answer why the tool works the way it does and collect feedback on how it can be improved.
- Provide the resources (people, time) in the graphics, data and tech teams in order to do quality control during the transition phase. Observations during quality control can be feedbacked to departments so they know what improvements and/or errors to watch out for.
- Empower experts within each department who can serve as a point of contact after the rollout and quality control phases. These people can be given extended features within the tool and can help share knowledge of the tool across their departments
🚢 Ship it!
And just like that at the end of September we did a soft launch. The graphics team exported all graphics from Q and handed them over to the production team. There were a few hiccups highlighted in the next section but overall we’re happy with the result. From here on after, graphics are exported solely from the production team and inserted in the layout.
Okay so what went not great
But this was always going to be a problem. As we mentioned above, it’s always a challenge to frame changes in a positive light when the newsroom is undergoing a transition. People don’t always read emails and sometimes they miss announcement meetings. Sometimes they just don’t like the change for whatever reason. The important thing is to make sure all of the key stakeholders are aware, understand and agree to the goal of the project. White noise you can take worth a grain of salt.
Our current solution: Listen and collect feedback but be ready to escalate to a single point-of-contact who is respected in the company and drives the general communication of the project.
Problem: The “Frankenstein” Graphics and Forced-Height
Aka: combi-graphics: two or more graphics within a smaller space. These graphics have been a part of our output for…ever. They are considered one graphic (a single image file) which contains several graphics within it. The export-for-print feature in Q has one very pesky constraint when it comes to combi-graphics: you can’t select a specific height. To achieve the nicest aesthetic, all of the content each individual graphic has to be the same in order for the final graphic to not have left over white space.
The compounding problem to making this style of graphic for years is that our print layout is designed for it. Designing the layout to have the flexibility to stack graphics differently or arrange them irregularly (affecting the flow of text) is its own project and therefore requires more time and more resources.
Our current solution is, for now, a transition solution: the production team searches for solutions with our art director when a department wishes for such a graphic. If there’s absolutely no flexibility in the content of the graphic or in the layout, the graphics team will make the graphic by hand.
Problem: Quality Control
Once upon a time the graphics, data and tech team together reviewed every single graphic published in Q. We reviewed them for improvements and errors ranging for chart type, design, data literacy, and even spelling errors. We killed this service because it’s wildly time consuming and it doesn’t encourage knowledge retention (“oh they’ll fix it.”). Moreover we wanted to let go of the role of gatekeeper. We love the phrase own your shit and we believe every single person should be responsible for the content they create.
However, we brought back this quality control for the rollout because Q-to-Print removes a secondary proofreading for print graphics. The challenge of course is to integrate this layer of service back into our daily business. We have already missed reviewing a few graphics which ended up being printed but could have been improved. We built Q-to-Print and so we too need to be responsible for what we have created.
Our current solution is: First, we made a Slack channel that displays all changes applied to published graphics with visual divs of the changes.
We also give weekly reminders within the team that everyone should pitch in and control the graphics. Three people specifically are scheduled daily in two hour shifts to check each graphic published in Q. We will continue this control throughout the first month of roll out.
The Q-to-Print project is another exceptional example of the importance of collaboration between teams within a newsroom. A technology team embedded in the newsroom is extremely valuable when approaching systematic problems with automation potential. It is also another tool-based process change in our armada here at NZZ that propels the organization through the digital transformation.
The roll out phase of Q-to-Print has been like watching an airplane you’ve engineered take its virgin flight. The build up has been exhausting and seeing the results are exciting but the potential of hiccups – or failure – is pretty nauseating. This emotional rollercoaster comes with doing something really great. We’ve driven a major change in changing our daily business with our digital product in mind. As we mentioned before, this change touches everyone and in that way it encourages a wholistic perspective shift in the newsroom mindset.