It is a most disturbing experience to walk into a modern newsroom and feel like a creature of a forgotten past.
In the Summer of 2014 I spent more than a month at ProPublica, a non-profit investigative reporting organization based in New York City. I wanted to observe how its “News Applications” team designs news graphics, from static infographics to interactive visualizations. I felt that I needed a refresher after teaching at the University of Miami for a couple of years.
I began my career as a news graphics journalist back in 1997. I have worked in news organizations in three countries, I’ve published a few books about the craft (The Functional Art and The Truthful Art among them,) and been part of most of the international conferences related to it, like the Malofiej Infographics World Summit and the Society for News Design Annual Workshop, besides teaching how to design news graphics in many countries. I thought I knew a bit about journalistic graphics.
I was delusional.
None of the endeavors listed above prepared me for what I witnessed. The craft of news graphics has changed much, and in fundamental ways, in just a handful of years. You’ve probably have noticed those transformations if you are a regular of Malofiej. At ProPublica I saw a department that embodied most of the transformations we’ve been discussing at the conference for the past decade or so: the central role of data and code, the increasing autonomy and influence of visual journalists in award-winning newsrooms, the rise of a new generation of tech-savvy news graphics creators, the relative decline of illustration-based explanation infographics, etc.
I had had hunches of some these changes before. First, when I was director of infographics at El Mundo online (elmundo.es,) in Spain between 2000 and 2005. I was trained as a journalist and as a print designer in the late 90s. Me and my team at elmundo.es transitioned to online and multimedia journalism in the early 2000s, using out-of-the-box software tools like Adobe Flash.
In 2014, during my stay at ProPublica, I decided that I wanted to analyze some of the most relevant changes news infographics have experienced recently. I transformed this idea into the central topic of my PhD dissertation, which will be published as a free e-book in the Summer of 2017, in a dedicated website, www.nerdjournalism.com.
The present chapter doesn’t describe those changes, or the research process I followed and the limitations of my data in detail. You will be able to read all about that in the website above when the project is finished. However, here’s a summary: Besides my observation at ProPublica, and a review of the literature about infographics in the news — which is not extensive enough, I must say, — with the help of some students I also interviewed nearly forty professionals and scholars who work at places like The New York Times, National Geographic magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Guardian, etc., and at several universities.
On top of that, I quantified the Malofiej awards. Again with the help of students, I went over my personal collection of Malofiej books up to the 23rd, published in 2015. I’m missing one book, but that didn’t compromise the results. We recorded variables such as volume, year, medal, special awards (Peter Sullivan, Miguel Urabayen,) category and subcategory, title, publication, region and country, etc.
Then, we paid attention to the elements on each winning entry, if it included pictorial representations, such as descriptive or explanatory illustrations, statistical charts and graphs, locator and data maps, photographs and videos, etc. We also identified the most dominant of those elements on each entry. Figure 1
Let me show you just a few charts based on the data we collected. The first two (Figures 2 and 3) summarize the origin of the winning entries at Malofiej. Up to the 19th edition, European publications dominated the awards, but in recent years, Non-Latin American ones, mainly from the United States, have taken the lead. Among these, The New York Times and National Geographic magazine are the most visible.
Figure 4 shows the central element of winning entries. This means the object — or group of objects — that are more prominently displayed on each infographic showcased in the Malofiej books. Notice the dominance of pictorial infographics throughout the years, and its relative decline in the past few editions, to the point that they are surpassed by data graphs and charts.
Figure 5 presents the same data, but aggregated. One of the main changes I explain in Nerd Journalism is a clear shift among people who create news infographics for a living: In the past, we tended to focus more on graphics that had “pictorial” elements at their center, such as visual explanations, illustrations, locator maps, photographs, videos, etc. Today, we see many more graphics with “abstract” representations, such as charts, graphs, and data maps, as most dominant elements, to the point that they constituted nearly half of the winning entries at Malofiej beginning on the 20th edition.
As long as the spreadsheet we put together included variables such as region, country, and publication, it was possible to explore the data at a much more granular level. For instance, Figure 6 displays the pictorial-abstract divide by region. As you can see, entries that have abstract, data-driven graphics as their main element have been historically much more dominant in Non-Latin (U.S. mostly) entries than in those coming from Latin America or Europe.
Figure 7 goes even deeper. Here, we can see the top six countries, the United States, Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Entries from Argentina and Brazil are still dominated by pictorial graphics, but the presence of abstract graphics has grown very rapidly, maybe mimicking perceived worldwide trends. Beginning quite early, the two European countries, Germany and the United Kingdom, show a very large presence of entries with abstract graphics at their center.
The question isn’t whether everything has become an infographic but whether we can find graphics in places where they weren’t likely to be found 25 years ago.
In Nerd Journalism I also paid attention to top news organizations at the Malofiej competition. Figure 8 shows the data from The New York Times.
What are the factors behind the relative decline — but not disappearance, by any means! — of illustration-based infographics (visual descriptions and explanations) and the rise of data-driven, abstract graphics at the Malofiej awards and, as I suggest in Nerd Journalism, in the infographics field in general? The reasons are varied, and they include changes in:
a) The tools we use.
b) The priorities we have, due to observed preferences among the public — some data-driven graphics have become the most viewed pieces in places like nytimes.com, — and economic considerations — the code behind a data-driven graphic can be repurposed and reused, while illustration-based infographics are very labor-intensive, one-time efforts.
c) The people we hire and collaborate with — fewer artists and graphic designers; more developers, programmers, data scientists, etc.
d) The increasing autonomy of news graphics professionals: In the past, most departments worked as “service” desks; today, at least in the publications that are considered highly influential by the community, they operate like autonomous content-creation units, deciding what to cover and how to cover it. They don’t wait for reporters to “order” graphics; they choose their topics, gather their information, and write and visualize stories.
e) Moreover, many in the loose information graphics field — which includes departments that aren’t called “graphics desks,” by the way — don’t call themselves “designers” anymore, but “reporters” and “editors.”
These and many other factors that I explore in Nerd Journalism interact with each other in complex ways. Together, they have transformed our craft greatly and — at least in my opinion — for the better.
Alberto Cairo. Knight Chair in Visual Journalism. University of Miami. Author of ‘The Functional Art’.