Len De Groot

The Fall of the Service Department and
the Rise of Innovation

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“How hard could it be?” I asked, staring at an original Macintosh with a seven-inch screen before sitting down to build my first infographic. My school newspaper needed a graphics editor in the Winter of 1992 and I had volunteered.

The discipline was pushing through growing pains caused by an explosion of interest in infographics. Small charts at the bottom left corner of USA Today section front had started to give way to more ambitious attempts at visual storytelling in a broader selection of newspapers.

For decades, many graphics editors were traditional journalists whose goal was to service the needs of the written report. These managers often lacked artistic skills and sophistication in visual storytelling.

New leaders built teams dedicated to creating visual, explanatory infographics that could stand alone as acts of journalism. The work explained some stories more clearly and concisely than could be achieved with the written word.

The teams included artists who learned to report, and reporters who learned to draw. But both types shared an important trait — a passion to push visual storytelling into new forms. It was a revolution founded on innovation.

Hurricane Andrew roared through South Florida in August of that year, causing widespread but patchwork devastation. The Miami Herald published a 16-page special report that examined what went wrong. It was powered by four custom databases totaling “45 reels of magnetic tape” and explanatory graphics (maps and annotated diagrams and photos) that explained why some homes were spared as entire neighborhoods were flattened. See it in its entirety here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/juggernautco/sets/72157607210036175/

The Herald’s coverage won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service the following year and editors around the country took notice of the power of databases and visual storytelling. Many tried to build teams of graphics and data journalists. Successful departments had several things in common:

—Expertise: Graphics departments fought to become equal partners in the journalistic discussion. Through example, persuasion and, at times, defiance, graphics departments established themselves as the experts on infographic storytelling, improving news coverage and enhancing enterprise work.

—Self-determination: The power to say no is the power to influence collaboration. It provides a framework in which to help newsroom partners understand what it takes to produce infographics. When departments gained the ability to manage their time, they gained freedom to be ambitious.

—Diverse skills: Artists are much more technically proficient than most non-artists understand. When graphics departments needed to innovate, passionate staffs were willing to work outside their comfort zones. They learned Excel, 3D, HTML, ESRI, SQL and Flash. (Yes, Flash. Before you youngsters snicker behind your hands at the graybeard, understand that Flash existed before CSS. We were able to achieve things in Flash in 2002 that couldn’t be done with JavaScript for another decade because of browser support.)

The storytelling is incredibly personal, which is a trend I suspect will continue. As wearables shrink and prices drop, we will have to rethink what it means to present a story.

This willingness to adapt turned graphics departments into centers of innovation. When the rest of the newsroom debated whether or not the Internet was a fad, we tried to understand and take advantage of the medium.

Don Wittekind and R. Scott Horner launched the South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s first interactive graphic, “Santa’s High-Tech Sleigh,” in December of 1996. This was quickly followed by science interactives, news games and the gallery that housed them, The Edge, on a server outside of the main site. Web editors did not want the content until The Edge outperformed most sections on the news site.

But to see that as technical innovation would be a mistake. Effective storytelling pulled people in and kept them coming back.

Most graphics departments evolved with the web as technology changed. Apple’s ban on Flash pushed departments to embrace a more programatic approach. Mike Bostock’s D3.js library simplified efforts to illustrate data and encourage reader exploration through interaction. Suddenly, JavaScript was a critical tool to tell stories.

When the phone became a dominant platform, departments adjusted. Graphics soon utilized location services and other mobile-only technologies.

Thus, it’s no surprise that virtual and augmented reality efforts are being pioneered by graphics departments. Teams at Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fusion and others have launched and contributed to those experiments.

The storytelling is incredibly personal, which is a trend I suspect will continue. As wearables shrink and prices drop, we will have to rethink what it means to present a story. Our ever-shrinking box (newspapers and screens) expands when viewed through an immersive platform.

If the devices evolve to implants, it will change again — and again after next five media revolutions. So the form news publishing next takes is a secondary concern.

Our challenges remain the same: Can we be intellectually nimble? Will we experiment? Are we willing to fail? Can we tell stories that readers want? Can we tell them effectively?

For now, I sit here staring at a VR headset attached to a fire-engine red gaming laptop with a ridiculous dragon emblazoned across its back, grateful that I found a profession where exploration and innovation are valued.

And I feel hopeful that our quest to tell visual stories will carry us further than I can imagine today. After all, how hard could it be?

Len De Groot is the Data Visualization Director of Los Angeles Times
(Los Angeles, CA, USA).

What do you think?