Session Transcripts

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Let’s Stop Worrying and Let Our Reporters Make Their Own Graphics

Session Facilitator(s): David Yanofsky, Becky Bowers

Day & Time: Friday, 12:30-1:30pm

Room: Thomas Swain

Hello. I’m David Yanofsky. I’m a reporter at Quartz.

I’m Becky Bowers, and I’m an economics editor at the Wall Street Journal.

And we wanted to talk and have a conversation about today about what your newsrooms are doing around making charts and graphics outside of specialized teams. And you know, share what we’re doing and have a hopefully very fruitful conversation about what works, what doesn’t, and how to get over the various spheres that we have in giving away control of these things.

Exactly. So maybe you could tell us a little bit about what Quartz does.

So Quartz—and by the way, we have an etherpad at that link if you want to take collaborative notes. There’s also some links in there that you might want to refer back to later. So at Quartz, we have the power—everyone in the newsroom has the power to make their own charts in a tool called Chartbuilder that’s made specifically for this purpose and it lets people make line charts, it lets people make bar charts. And that’s about it. Limited color palettes. It fits our specified color design and as developers we’ve been able to train certain heavy users of it in, kind of, like, one step beyond that is something Graphics Desk might be doing more of, which is adding these charts in Illustrator, and adding annotations and modifying them, and taking them out of this constrained tool and into this open environment.

And first I have to say that I’m a huge fan of Chartbuilder, when I was with PolitiFact, we used Quartz’ copy. And at the Journal even if we have huge specialized teams that make nothing of wonderful graphics for print and for web, it turns out that it’s incredibly useful for us to use even the most basic tools to make very quick charts. The most common tool used by our team of economics reporters at the Journal is simply a macro in Excel. We have a variety of chart templates that already have color palettes for line charts, bar charts. There is a pie chart option and this is a macro that our reporters use frequently. They just put together their simple Excel line chart or bar chart and they are minutes away from exporting, uploading, and copying it into a blog post. And some of our posts like on big indicator days, jobs days will do ten charts, 13 charts, everything that you need to know about anything. They are insanely popular with readers. We throw those on the home page, yes—little reporter-made charts. They lead to the charts roundups. But readers love them and they are a way for so many more of our blog posts and other quick-turn items to have charts that are then easy to share. They do very well on Twitter and Facebook.

And it’s been a very important part of the reporting process for a lot of our reporters who tell me, it actually helps them to come up with the story that they might be writing to throw data into a very simple visualization tool.

So we—well, first let’s just talk about who is you guys who’s here. How many of you work at newspapers? And how many—and how many in public media/broadcast, television? Anyone in television? One person in television? How many of you work at organizations that allow people outside of a typical or traditional graphics desk to make graphics? Cool. Cool. So we took this—we have been collecting responses in a survey, which you can see, you can see the responses up on etherpad, and it pretty much showed that. And one last question: How many of you work in newsrooms that have that have less than 15 people in them. How many, 15-30? 30-100? More than 100?

I love the diversity in this group.

So our survey seemed to reflect that, where people of all sizes, all different types of organizations and the thing that I found really great is that at all of these organizations, when you look, you know, deeper into this data, there are at every size and at every type, there are examples of organizations that are letting non-specialists make, you know, what is traditionally irresponsible has been a specialist work, activity maps, graphs and charts. So if you’re not in one of those organizations and you want to be a part of them, you can look around in this room, and you can look at the server results and you can say, this is not typical anymore. There’s people that are doing this all around the country and all around the world.

So, I guess, in getting through this, in getting, you know, non-specialists to making charts, there is this fear. I know that I encountered it.

I still have it.

She still has it. And I still have it… mostly that people making these charts are going to do things poorly. That they’re going to do things wrong, incorrect.

Or just hideous. We do that, too.

Or just hideous. So I guess we want to hear: What have been your guys’ fears in either allowing if you don’t allow other people to do it, allowing people to do this, or in just your everyday thinking of non-specialists making charts?

Um, people using tools that aren’t configurable, or can’t bend to a house style. That’s a fear.

So your fear is that people are using a tool that doesn’t fit house style.

Or is incapable of adhering. It’s not configurable. We can’t adjust the styles.

Sure. And you have—and do you have a tool that can? Do you have tools that can do that?


No. Anyone else? Anyone else suffer from that?

I have a question, though.


Can I just ask, out of the people whose newsrooms do allow non-specialists to make charts, how many of those newsrooms allow those charts to be published out review by specialists at all?

So that’s a question we haven’t asked and I think it’s an important one to ask. And I hope that we’ll have—we will have a chance to have a more detailed discussion about what the process is in your newsroom. At the Journal both things happen. And the way that that’s happening is that a reporter might give a chart to an editor who’s not medical a visual editor and that will get published to a blog. So it’s not to the primary platform. It’s not in print. And so there’s a sense that there’s a streamlined process where a specialized visual editor isn’t necessarily part of that process.

What I discovered is that the more we get specialists involved, at least in the—well, yes. I’ll stop there and we’ll continue that conversation. Josh, you had a question?

No, I had another thing similar to the house style, which was tools that can potentially introduce security vulnerabilities if they have, like, Javascript in that you don’t know very much about.

Mm-hmm. Okay.

Mobile—that they won’t work there.

I think before even thinking about any of the tools or anything like that, the establishment of the editorial process for, you know, ‘cause nothing, really, I work for Minnesota Public Radio, and, you know, nothing goes out without, whether it’s reporter-done or otherwise, without having an editor look at it, somebody check the math, we treat it like any other journalistic thing. Wouldn’t imagine anybody getting anything out, you know, without that editorial process.

But that’s no different than your words, right?

Well, yeah, and we shouldn’t be treating any of this differently. And besides when do we get Atlas?

You get Chartbuilder. You get version two, now. Atlas as an open thing is to be determined.

I had a terrible data literacy issue in my newsroom and so we started let’s talk about why this is a bad chart because there’s a lot of confusion around that.

Um, and did you—what did you do to try and improve the data literacy?

I mean, we had a brownbag and I just walked through 30 really, really awful charts. Andered my grievances with each one and kind of just—half of the people weren’t paying attention and never revisited the charts issue again, but at least half the people, I’m telling you this is a boo’d chart and you know why I think it’s a bad chart because, you know, seeing all these sad excuses for charts, and it kind of worked, you know, it could o it got to a place where some people were other charts and stuff.

Has anybody else held a brownbag or training at their organization?

Do you still publish the ones that don’t need mustard?

Not usually. I actually don’t work there anymore. So I’m not clear what they’re doing.

So that seems like the perfect segue to our activity here. We want to make sure that we get as specific as possible in our conversation about what just might happen if we put tools in the hands of non-specialists. This is an activity called Run, Fix Kill. The following are real examples from our that you did. Some haven’t been published. I’m not really sure. We’re going to put up these one of 12. One at a time. Each table should have three colors: Green, yellow, red. The key is here if you can read it. But green, run, yellow, fix.

Approximation of a stoplight. So green and blue, even around the yellow, you’re going to send pack and fix yourself, and then the pink you’re going to say, “No.”

So for each chart when we put them up, you’re going to have a brief conversation at your table, would you run, would you fix, would you kill, come to some degree of consensus.

Basically consider—things to consider are the style, how it’s hard that these aren’t part of your organization, but consider how well these charts were matched. What the style’s supposed to be, whether it’s legible, whether it’s appropriately representing the data, whether it’s representing the data as best as it could. And anything else you need.

So after a brief conversation on this first chart, we’ll just ask an representative from each table to run up, throw the appropriate color on chart one here. And we can have a conversation.

That says chart three. Let’s…

We can count.

Well, there’s another chart three.

So we’re already winning at this demonstration.


So this is chart one. This is chart—well, we’ll edit it as we go. Chart one.

All right. Run, fix, or kill? Go.

We should point out that all of these charts are charts that were made in—by non-specialists in our newsrooms. These were not—none of these were made by specialists.

We’ll try to do this in about 60 seconds so talk fast.

Deadline is fast approaching.

You’re the first! Go, go, go!

Cici wins! Just kidding. This would be an excellent time for you to share your consensus with us.

They aren’t running!

You don’t have a yellow pad.

We just have a hot orange pad.

Oh, sorry.

You know what? You should run and steal…

We don’t have that much of a change that qualifies that as a kill.

That’s true, to a point do off to change it that it’s not worth it. That’s a good question.

Okay. Next one.

Oh, geez…

Everyone read this okay? Should I make it bigger?

Get rid of two of the lines.

Kill. Kill. Anyone else? All right. Chart three! Are we done? All right. With ten seconds to spare. Oh, no?


Wow. That’s the 5% outside of the confidence range. Chart four. Wow. Is that everyone? Cool. That took longer than a minute. It took, like, you gotta wait on that one group. Chart five.

I don’t know that this one actually ran. No consensus! Chart six. Kill it and start over is fixing. You know the reality of this, if you kill something, does it come back to life? All right. That’s a minute. We’re over a minute and we have one person missing…

Run! Run! Run!

Don’t fall, though.

It’s like the running of the interns.

It’s funny because he was almost my intern!



Chart seven!

[ Group Work ]

That’s a minute! Decision time. All right. Got them all. Chart eight. Data from Standard & Poor’s. Otherwise known as S&P. Fifteen seconds. All right. Chart nine. We’re unclear if we’ve just broken your will or it’s actually…

It’s fine. No trick question.

You can do it?

Consensus. Wow we have our first winner.

There’s a real estate reporter right now who just feels so happy.

Chart ten. One more? One more. We’re waiting on one?

Back table, let’s go. All right. Last two. Chart 11. We have five seconds left. There are three up there. Is that everyone? We’re missing one. Aren’t there seven?

All right. Dig deep. One more.

The last chart. I don’t even know what it is. Do you know what it is?

I do, actually.

Holy shit. [ Group Work ]

Five seconds. Cool. So that was fun. We have fixed one, two, three, four, five, six, charts. We’re going to run two of them. And we’re going to kill one, two, three –

We’re running three.

We’re running. Okay. So let’s go around. Let’s go back to chart one and quickly, if anyone is inspired to say why they wanted to fix or kill this, really quickly. One thing.

Label the y-axis.

Millions of what.

Millions of what?

Seasonally adjusted non-farm payrolls.

Would it change anyone’s mind that this ran in the Wall Street Journal next to one story about job numbers.

This was one of our ten charts—that many jobs are important.

Ambiguous gray.

Oh, yeah, recessions should be labeled there. Absolutely.

Oh, is that what’s happening. That’s why those parts are blue.

All right. Chart two. Chart two now that we know what that gray means. Other than the unlabeled gray anyone have any reasons why they wanted to kill this chart?

These things shouldn’t are on the same, like—hours and earnings.

These things shouldn’t be on the same chart.

We don’t know what compared to what? Plus or minus compared to yesterday?

Change from a year earlier.

You did make this –

All right. Clarity.

In a good chart, you should be able to extract that information without the reader having to spend—it’s a fully reasonable.

It took more than a minute.

If you’re looking at a chart and you have a minute to discuss it, and you weren’t able to explain, I would say that’s a chart failure.

I want to know who wanted to fix the chart.

Stacking data like that can be misleading to the reader. We just felt like it would be more clear if it would perhaps—what did we say?

Inflation or if the numbers were adjusted for inflation.

Oh, yeah.

Sure. All right. I didn’t make this. I didn’t make this.

Good minute of passive-aggressiveness.

Just like clearly shows the correct trend that is there, right? Like, streaming is increasing out of total market share that’s physical.

You just need to take a quick look at it once.

Yeah, it was quick.

Chart four. Not—no real consensus. I mean and… mostly physicians but not by much. Anybody want to say anything about this?

We killed it.

We didn’t think it was a good—like, the boxes—it was just like we weren’t…

It didn’t seem like the right representation up there.

Like the binary up or down flag.

It made it difficult to figure out year-to-year, but also, it’s up, down, flat from what?

Although to be fair it’s very clear that Italy and Spain, right, that’s where it’s going, I think that’s where it was at, it’s like, well, yeah, I think it could have been said a little bit better but you know…

So saying a little bit more about the context.

I think our point was that I think we want to know the margins of up, down, and flat, but it’s all right, that we don’t have to think about the –

This is a very one-message chart—Germany good, Spain, bad!

Did you pick out anything design wise about this?

My brain was first trying to make sense of the trend like, if there was some upward movement or I guess it would be downward movement.

I would have –

You wanna go?

Sorry, imto interrupt.

My brain was trying to make this comparison into how Spain is turning into Italy, and France is turning into Germany but it’s not really.

My issue when this came across my desk, or really when I saw it published on a site because the person who made this is based in Europe and that means that it was made when I was sleeping. The color issue, the color green is not in our color palette, and also the spaces between the boxes aren’t consistent.

Oh, yeah.

Oh, yeah.

Things that only a specialist would notice.

But on the other hand, do our readers know? None of you noticed that in the minute that you were scrutinizing this chart. So I was like, I think it’s still on the site like there is this. I think I might have made them change the colors to not be colorblind and I had a busy day so I didn’t have them fix the gaps between the boxes because it didn’t really matter.

So I would say we’ve had enough time with these series of charts and discussion to get a sense of the kinds of conversations you were having and I wanted to make sure that we had plenty of time to talk about what we’re doing to make the best possible charts.

If anybody wants to put notes—if you feel strongly about this, you can put a link to the slides in there and you can reference the charts.

So I feel like that was representative of the kinds of conversations that you’ll have to have with your user when you start soliciting a lot of reporter-generated charts. And I would like to you all to turn to your groups now and talk about what you’re doing in your newsroom that works—that gets publishable, interesting charts quickly from reporters and to readers, or viewers. And what you think you could be doing to do an even better job. Spend a couple of minutes talking about that. Please somebody in the etherpad taking notes so that we can collect, and we don’t have the chance to report back to the full group. What works? What could we be doing better?

[ Group Work ]

Getting last words now. We’ll wrap up shortly.

All right. Take a moment to wrap up now. All right. So let’s go around the room and go table-by-table. Have each table give the most salient tip that they had for how to make all of this work better. We’ll start over here.

This is our idea.


I’m going to share your example.

What example is that?


I think a big struggle that we have at ProPublica is we want to review public charts because we want to review stories about things that are like so-and-so is terrible. Such and such town is racist. So the charts are wrong and it’s a real big problem and we’ve been trying to figure out a good way for us to do that thing. So Ryan had suggested what they did in Mary’s room which is in Slack, there are already newsrooms in Slack, there’s a channel, and whoever needs to review it, super fast, you don’t need to go underneath the glass radar and then have politics wars about it so that was your suggestion.

This is fantastic. We’re increasingly using Slack for this purpose and it’s been awesome.

So we generally talked about it being an editorial process and making sure that the tools that we provide our newsroom staff with conform to a well established, consensual guideline.

Who creates those guidelines?

Well, for me, personally, I, as of this Monday I am developing for NPR News, our visual language kit for what our visuals are going to look like. So it has to be part of an editorial process. Someone has to make a choice.

Absolutely, this is an incredibly valuable process and it makes all the difference in results.

I’ll just say we sat here and chatted about, sort of, where we were at in our respective newsrooms and there’s a wide variety of experience. We have different sizes of staff. We have colleagues who are excited about it, and want to participate but we don’t have tools for them and we have colleagues who are excited about it, had tools, but need watching. We didn’t really come up with any tips or helpful advice for us.

Nothing works?

Well… that’s not what I’m saying but we just didn’t discuss it.

So you had a very therapeutic session?


All right. Group therapy’s cool too.

The—I think the one thing that I took away was that people are reluctant to sort of end up in a position where you’re really reliant on the builder because who is knows what’s going to happen.

Also adding to that point, if you skip the buider route, you’re using off-the-shelf tools. And you’re using custom parts. Guess what, you’re going to be using the Chart Editor, and that’s a huge burden especially in newsrooms when we’re all on one to two person teams. So having to editorialize parts on top of figuring out workflow, so it’s a lot of stuff so that’s kind of just like a pain point and we need to figure that out.

Can I add one? Yeah, we talked about a lot of things. The other thing that we kind of touched on too, is I think in some newsrooms, too, there’s no one who really owns this. So there’s a lot of people who can do it but there’s no one who’s really in a role that’s the editor role and the editing process is probably not one that benefits preparing your graphic and then trying to kind of navigate that is something that some of us are still trying to figure out.

That’s a great one.

And coming up with a workflow is critical because it’s amazing when you don’t have it, all of the things that happen that you might not expect that are beneficial. We are about to embed a member of the visuals team with the economics desk in D.C., so someone who normally might have been in New York is now with reporters in D.C. and we’re very much looking forward to having a workflow that is—that includes taking advantage of this visual expertise more routinely and having them share standards. So trying to open up bottlenecks is one of our major goals here. This shouldn’t be a single point where things can clog. The teammate is to open it up. So figuring out opening standards whether it’s having a standard set of rules that are shared widely, or having a free flow of information, having a Slack channel open, are all ways to make this happen.

Quartz has an Illustrator document that any time you’re trying to do something in Illustrator, you go to this document. It has everything spelled out in it, but it’s really for people to be able to copy and paste a label and they don’t have to worry about what font size, what gets bolded. It’s just copy-paste.

We weren’t maybe more on the group therapy side. That’s what we were discussing, right? We’re learning, guys! Constraints. Constraints are key. But constraints need to speak. So at Bloomberg, our chart builder tool has probably decreased the average quality of our graphics and by unbridling graphics editors increase the quality of their graphics and has, overall been a great thing.

You’re here. That’s exciting. Now, if we could just pull up the bottom, right?

Uh… I don’t know like, maybe it’s something—some things but yeah. As much as possible. Or at least tradeoffs.

And our last table?

Second-to-last table.

Second-to-last. I’m so sorry.

Um, I guess what we talked about is what’s key to the process is having somebody who hasn’t looked at the data just have an quick look and say, I get this or I don’t get this. So that little added perspective or little time, we all thought was pretty critical to the process, whether it’s a copy editor or whatever.

Last but not least?

Um, so one of—at least my concern—maybe the rest of the team will look at it was wanting to look at that bar and not killing their charts but not wanting to kill their enthusiasm for doing it. And came up with a great the idea for actually doing this exercise, doing a monthly or a bimonthly brownbag, having those people make those charts and doing a group critique, so that a there’s not one person, one editor doing the critiques, but that they’re critiquing each other and learning.

That’s a fantastic idea that frankly I’m going to now go implement in my team. Had.

One thing that I heard a number of tables but didn’t come up in the whole room is this, this fresh eyes thing. When you have reporters that are really close to their data and they go and make their chart and it makes complete and entire sense to them and then you show them to some fresh eyes and they have no idea what it means. So trying to encourage—and having that Slack channel or whatever, chat, some way to share charts when people make them to say, “You gotta check on it.”

So one last thing that—how many of you actually make tools in your newsroom that help empower this kind of work? A bunch of you, that is awesome. So one of the things that I hope that happens is that you’re additional inspired to make tools that makes it easier for reporters to contribute. Because one thing that I put out, a conversation starter in our econ channel in our Slack channel was hey, on reporters, what would make this easier for you, and it was this resounding, “We need better tools!” They wanted things that would let them make more attractive graphics more quickly and would give them options but the right options and increasingly at the Journal we’ve been, luckily we have teams that think this is very important and have been pushing. And so we’ve got something that a lot of you guys also have. Thoughts?



Yeah, I don’t have that option.

Anyway, The Journal has a whole suite of tools they can use.

And if we continue if you see the first one, there’s a chart building tool that’s actually market stated, and actually autofills with a lot of market data. There’s a new sortable chart tool that’s embeddable in pages and responsive, something that we use multiple times a week. The developer of that is here at this conference. I’m so grateful for her. And there’s an entire page here and what you can’t see and I’m so sad is that under each of these descriptions. So it’s a name of the tool, a description of the tool, a link to the tool, a link to the documentation, and a link to the examples. All three of those things. So what this means that if I’m a reporter that hasn’t used this page before, I literally just send them a link to this page and send them a link to the documentation and say, “Hey, try it out.” And this has been incredible in terms of our ability for expanding and I’m excited about possibilities as we move forward.

One last, last thing.


If you’re still interested in talking about this, especially the kind of the more technical side of implementing something like Chartbuilder in your newsroom, we’re having a lunch conversation in Ski-U-Mah. Other than that, thanks, guys. Have fun.