Q&A with a NYT graphics editor

Based on my observations, it seems as if The New York Times is running graphics on the front page above the fold (a space typically reserved for a photograph) more frequently. This observation, a recent NiemanLab post on the NYT graphics department as a news desk, and my own recent work on data visualization, inspired me to reach out to The New York Times graphics department.

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What follows is a Q&A with Larry Buchanan, a graphics editor at The New York Times.

Q: Is the NYT running graphics on the front page above the fold more frequently?
A: It does seem that way, but I have no idea where this stint fits historically, if it’s more or less or average. I’m no historian or archivist, but the Times does have a rich history of using graphics on the front page.

Q: What are the earliest examples of a graphic in the NYT? And on the front page?
A: Not really sure, but would absolutely love to know the answer. Attached is a front page map the Times ran of Charles Lindberg’s historic flight [May 22, 1927]. Also, a colleague Tim Wallace, said the paper definitely ran maps during the Civil War. Here’s one from 1861 [October 31].

Q: How do you make the decision whether to run a photo or a graphic in this prime spot?
A: These decisions happen at levels far above me, but general considerations for graphics on the front page involve whether or not the information we have is best conveyed visually, and how powerful that visual is (as in, a map is sometimes the story, in a plane crash or temperature rise, recent examples from a colleague, Tim Wallace). We’re competing with the best photographers in the world, so graphics for A1 have to deliver a quick punch. Personally, I hope they do three things:

1. Offer a general, quick visual impression for the reader.

2. Hold the page visually.

3. Give the reader a deeper dive once they pick up the paper and can zoom in.

This A1 piece by Haeyoun Park and Matthew Bloch on drug overdoses does those three things so well. Sometimes the “graphic” is a visual, concise version of a complicated topic to help readers wrap their mind around it, like this Iran deal piece by Sergio Peçanha.

Q: What types of tools and technologies do you use to create graphics?
A: We use a variety of tools — everything from basic spreadsheets and Google docs, to Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, Aftereffects and Premiere, to 3D programs like Maya and Rhino, to mapping programs like QGIS and ArcGIS, statistics and charting programs like R and Excel, and a lot of good ol’ fashion HTML, CSS and JavaScript (heavy focus on D3.js).

Q: Are there certain topics that lend themselves better to front page graphics than photos? Perhaps election results?
A: It depends on the story and the information. The graphics desk is a news-driven desk so we’re constantly trying to figure out how to cover the news visually. Election results are certainly a common example, but there are hundreds of others. Our twitter feed provides a constantly changing answer to that question.

Q: When developing a graphic, what is the balance between presenting raw data and crafting a compelling story?
A: This again depends on the story and the information. Our work has a pretty huge range. Data-heavy pieces are certainly part of that, and the balance is tricky. We want to find the uniquely visual angle and blend design skills and devices like typography, color, layout, spacing, with reporting techniques, like picking up the phone and interviewing sources, and actually going to the scene to report first-hand. We rarely present “raw” data. My colleague Amanda Cox has talked about this before (slide 12), reminding people that we don’t do that with words, and nothing important was ever headlined “Here is some data. Hope you find something interesting.” Our job, in a lot of ways, is to be that conduit, to help people understand and make sense of something better.

Q: One of the reasons that photos are effective communication tools is that they can create a human connection and evoke emotion in audiences. While rich in information, graphics often seem to lack a human connection. Can graphics create a human connection and evoke emotion in audiences? And is this a consideration (or part of the discussion) for the NYT graphics team? Especially if the front page is involved?
A: They can, and this is always on our minds. This piece, that represents deaths in Syria, attempts to do that by visually representing every death instead of clumping deaths into say bars, or circles. This piece tries to show the scale of the migrant crisis by using a photo of migrants as the frame of reference. This piece uses one Bronx voter to create that connection and show how powerful some Republican voting districts are. Pieces around large datasets like this help people to establish a connection by allowing them to find themselves in the data.

Q: Finally, what advice would you offer to a student who is interested in a career in news graphics (i.e. types of classes, sources of content to consume, specific skills)?
A: Students who are interested in graphics should think about how to tell stories visually — what affordances visuals give you, where they are better than words, and how they fit in a larger package or stand alone to tell their own story. Read stories with a visual eye. How would you have shown this? Those students need to know how to write and report for visuals, which is a related, but different skill than straight up news reporting. They should think about learning to code, writing html, css and javascript to actually make some of their ideas reality. Art classes, like drawing, painting, sculpture, are incredibly helpful. Make cool shit. Publish it. Repeat. We’re increasingly consumed by visuals everyday — Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat. How can we harness the visual power of those things for good? To explain, illuminate, and aid in understanding?

 

Image credit:  Larry Buchanan and used with his permission.

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