Journalism’s struggle with infographics
The facts and figures behind omnipresent images.
By Katrina Pyne
By the end of today you will have seen hundreds, if not thousands, of infographics.
They are everywhere—street signs, weather forecasts, the icons on your phone, littered in your social media alerts and your grandmother’s cookbook—omnipresent in your everyday life. In short, they are everywhere text is integrated with words.
When reading a long article your mind is constantly looking for traces of these graphics.
Up, down, left, right, left again, now up again. Looking for pictures, charts, graphs and maps, anything but the endless stretch of text that disappears beyond the bottom of your screen.
The human mind is not an easy thing to please, and journalists know it.
Newsrooms are constantly bombarded with a demand from readers for infographics. But even though journalists want to deliver on this, and know they should, they often can’t. And the very same programs that allow social media sites to cash in on quick and dirty infographics act as a curse in the newsroom.
A real piece of visual journalism is not quick and dirty—it’s expensive and time-consuming, and most newsrooms just don’t understand how demanding it is to create a good infographic.
If infographics were like baseball, Kyle Shaw would be that one fan who always makes it onto the JumboTron, chest painted, blowing on a horn.
He is the editor of the Coast, Halifax weekly alternative to its more strait-laced news rivals. He sits on the corner of his office desk in a room filled with artifacts from the Coast’s history of visual journalism. On the shelf next to him is a dense stack of old Spy magazines, a snarky graphic-filled publication out of New York City.
On the top shelf, long unplugged and buried in sticky notes, is a Macintosh Classic II, a miniature computer screen surrounded by 16 pounds of tinted yellowish plastic. It was one of two Classics used to design the layout and graphics of the Coast when it began in 1993.
After the Coast’s infographic heyday in its first few years, the weekly lost its enthusiasm. You can pick up any issue from the early 2000s and there are only a handful of infographics.
In the last year, Shaw and his graphic designer have tried to go back to their roots. But they’ve run into a problem. They can’t produce the number of infographics they want to—charts, maps, pie graphs timelines or interactives—without more designers.
Shaw estimates the Coast published 250 infographics in the last year. When it started almost 20 years ago it was averaging half that, but in a paper less than half the size. The years in between have been a desert of text.
They’ve got the spirit now, but the graphics are slow to sprout up.
And the Coast isn’t alone.
The 2007 and 2010 redesigns of the Globe and Mail brought its reputation from the “good grey Globe” to a full-colour, high-gloss publication. They brought their team of seven print and digital designers together to combine forces.
The expectations went way up for infographics. But they still aren’t anywhere near their competitors.
In a week, between its website and print edition, the New York Times and its graphic team of 25 are publishing two to three complex interactives, up to five medium-sized interactives, and between 20 and 40 printed charts, maps and diagrams They’ve got the money for designers and, with that, the money to play.
“The reality is that we are doing a lot more with a lot less and the expectations are growing and the resources are shrinking,” says Devin Slater, a graphics designer at the Globe and Mail. “That’s happening everywhere, not just newspapers but magazines … So how can we deliver quality journalism and infographics? How do we maintain that high standard?”
At the CBC, journalists struggle to find the time.
John Gushue is the digital writer and editor for CBC News in St. John’s. He says he is trying to be more creative in terms of visual journalism but often finds himself sticking with a more basic approach simply because he doesn’t have time to play around.
“They are far more complicated than most people think,” he says. “I get a bit of a chuckle when I hear people say ‘oh, that’s such a shallow graphic’ and I’m thinking, do you have any idea how difficult it is produce these things? It’s so much easier to just write 15 paragraphs of number-laden sentences than to produce an elegant and well-distilled infographic.”
He says without a graphic designer to help him, the infographics he does produce are fairly rudimentary.
For Halifax’s Chronicle Herald, there just isn’t an understanding of what goes into proper data visualization. They put together roughly 20 individual infographics per year, but when the only two-person graphic department was cut in half three years ago, things started to go downhill.
Matt Dempsey is the Herald’s only designer left standing. In his job, he has to push for infographics to be a priority.
“You have to be at the first news meeting early in the day because otherwise you end up just playing catch-up and when the hours get short, people get antsy. They know that they’ve got a deadline and they’ll pick simplicity over complexity every time.”
With the 24-hour news cycle and stories breaking on the minute, no one’s going to wait for an add-on.
“We always have the option of just running the story, too,” says Dempsey, “and no one’s going to miss something they never really saw.”
Every once in a while the stars align and something big lands on Dempsey’s desk. This year, it was the Titanic’s 100th anniversary. The Herald wanted to put together special coverage and Dempsey took hold of the graphic reins. Over the course of a month he put in about 40 hours of work on this project alone—not as much as he would have liked—but in the end his work culminated in a timeline, an interactive map of Halifax’s Titanic landmarks and several photo galleries.
The result was satisfying. But it’s the kind of treat you only get once a year at the Herald. Because even when the money is there and time allows, infographics still face a huge problem in newsrooms. A problem so big it spans the physical length of the newsroom—communication between journalists and designers.
Terra Tailleur is a senior writer for CBC Halifax and long-time digital journalist. She has seen the best and the worst of infographics.
She says part of the problem is a disconnect between the designers and the journalists. Journalists are the ones who researched the data. They know where the story needs to go and what the graphic should say to the reader. For designers, there are other priorities, like making the graph or map or timeline look good.
“All too often designers and developers are shoved into the back room in a corner in a basement,” says Tailleur. “Part of the challenge is to get journalists and web designers speaking the same language,” or just speaking to each other at all.
At their best, she says, a graphic can bring data to life, making it accessible, beautiful and timeless.
Sara Quinn, who teaches visual journalism at the Poynter Institute, has some advice for those looking to make infographics.
A poorly produced infographic is not only a waste of space and effort, but a story-killer. If it confuses the reader they might leave the story altogether.
“If (an infographic) doesn’t explain the context it’s in, then this information won’t make sense to anybody and what’s the value in that? There is no value,” says Tailleur.
Then there are the freelancers.
The paid-by-the-word freelance model just doesn’t take into account the massive amount of labour that goes into data visualization. And for the freelancer, it’s an even bigger challenge to find meaning in a graphic while working from across the city, province, or even country.
Emily Davidson is a freelance graphic designer in Halifax, who doesn’t have journalists looking over her shoulder as she whips out cross-country maps or interactive timelines for faraway clients.
She rarely gets a chance to work in person with the journalist who gathered the data. More often, she’ll check her inbox and find a list of statistics, maybe a few introductory text paragraphs, and a note from an editor saying “make this into a spread.”
It’s hard to produce something that is accurate and persuasive when you’re not sure what exactly it is you’re producing. It takes time. And it costs money.
An intermediate freelance designer with three to four years of experience can charge $40 per hour. (The average infographic takes about six hours to produce.) As for senior designers, the sky is the limit—easily $60 per hour in Halifax. Or even $5,000 per hour, if you are good enough.
For more involved graphics the price goes up exponentially.
Paying that is just not an option for many news organizations.
None of these problems are new. It was 1786 when William Playfair published the first ever samples of line graphs, bar graphs, area charts and pie graphs.
His work was revolutionary, but slow to catch on.
In the 1970s infographics took a step forward with the invention of the desktop computer. Any doubts about the importance of graphics were blown apart in 1990 through research like Poynter’s EyeTrack Studies, which used computerized headgear to record what a reader saw on a page. These studies verified that photos and graphics were viewed far more than text.
The invention of the desktop computer was almost 40 years ago. If data overload was a problem then, it’s nothing compared to now. Designers agree that the need for infographics is more crucial now than ever.
Picking up on this, social media sites like Tumblr, Visual.ly and Pinterest have given readers a big appetite for infographics. Pinterest gained 10 million unique U.S. visitors faster than any independent site in history. More than one-fifth of Facebook-connected users are on Pinterest daily, according to TechCrunch, a technology news website.
Three of the four ingredients are there. News outlets need a tool to communicate massive amounts of data. The public craves visual journalism thanks to social media. And since the desktop computer, designers have had the ability to make quality infographics.
All they need is time and, if not time, money—and if not money, well, then a lot of spirit.
You can hear Kyle Shaw take a deep breath on the phone line.
“When we started the Coast, we were trying to make this paper’s identity and trying to make ourselves different. You can compare apples to apples or you can print oranges. We were going to print these accessible funny, clever, snarky, unique oranges and then set ourselves apart.”
When asked about the future of infographics, he lets out a laugh. He says the decline of infographics at the Coast has come with some angst.
“I’m a believer … yet my own paper doesn’t do them anywhere near enough.”
Published Jan. 2013