The simple tool we use to decide what stories to work on at NZZ Visuals

David Bauer
Mar 22, 2019 · 4 min read

At NZZ Visuals, we made it our mission to foster the variety of how stories are told, mostly from a visual perspective. We do so by engaging on all levels of complexity, from providing a toolbox that allows anyone in the newsroom to produce their own simple graphics to large data-driven investigations and visual-first explainer pieces.

And in between those two extremes, this is where things get tricky. A story that could benefit from a custom-made graphic, but is fine without it, too. A story that is not data-driven, but probably should be. A story in which users would expect to see a video, but which won’t be featured prominently on our site or any of our other distribution channels. Typically, those stories are pitched by people from outside our team and we are asked to contribute. So what do we do with those requests?

We explicitly want to work on stories like these, and not just on large-scale visual projects. As a news organisation, there’s no point in standing out every now and then when your users get a subpar experience every day. In order for NZZ to be successful — especially in building a loyal, paying user base — we believe our work should go into a lot of stories, not just a few.

That being said, we need to make sure we spend our resources on stories that matter and where our contribution makes a difference. As a team, we’ve learned over time that…

a) we get way more requests than we can reasonably work on and produce results that meet our quality standards.

b) we took on too much work that in hindsight didn’t seem like the best use of our time.

c) we lacked a fast, reliable and transparent way of dealing with requests.

That is why we developed the «Visuals-Ampel», a traffic light-esque tool that either results in a green light (it’s a «go» for the project) — or not.

Here’s how it works:

We use six criteria to gauge whether our time will be well spent on the project, each giving the project zero, one or two points. A project needs at least six points in total to be greenlighted.

We have an intentionally limited number of people from our team who work on such projects, rotating each week, leaving resources for long-term-projects and fundamentals like styleguide development or training. Whenever a contribution from our team is requested, someone rates the project, ideally together with the person who requested our help.

As you can see from the three tiers for the amount of time we invest, this tool is for small-ish projects, ranging from a couple of hours to a couple of days (the latter of which gives you zero points for that criterion, so it needs to score high on the others). Any project that is larger than that will be discussed in more detail and decisions are made based on a more thorough pitch (which we use for ideas from within our team as well).

Nice idea, but does it stand the test of reality?

We’ve started using this system in January, so it’s still early to judge and we keep tweaking it a bit, but here’s what we learned so far.

  • The «Ampel» helps us communicate to other editors and reporters how we work and why we might say No to their request.
  • The Ampel changes the mode of ordering to requesting. This is important because not too long ago, anyone could just order graphics whenever they thought fit. It still takes time for everyone in the newsroom to accept that our team makes its own decisions on what stories we work on. Transparent and comprehensible decisions help.
  • We have become better at estimating the visual potential of a story and the resources needed — and at arguing our case. We can and must still get a lot better at both of these.
  • We have reduced the number of projects that felt like a bad use of our time and expertise. We still need to make sure, though, that all requests go through the «Ampel».
  • So far, the system seems to filter out the right requests, producing few false positives and few false negatives.

Do you want to use the tool and adapt it to your needs? There you go.
Do you have questions or feedback? Let us know!
Do you face similar challenges and use a different approach that works well? We’d love to hear about it.

The tool has been developed by Alexandra Kohler, Marie-José Kolly, Haluka Maier-Borst and David Bauer, with inputs from Anna Wiederkehr.

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