OK it might be a bit of a stretch to say that Data Visualization can save them but in the United States at least, newspapers and magazines are using dataviz to engage readers. The Information Lab Ireland spoke to former New York Times and Wall Street Journal Visual Editor, Sarah Slobin to find out what the future holds.
Since starting out as a journalist with the New York Times some twenty-six years ago,Sarah Slobinhas seen many changes in the use of data and data visualization.
“Data itself has become more accessible,” says the current Visual Editor at Thomson Reuters investigative and data team. “You used to have to visit the police station to get a copy of the crime stats or wait for a fax from a federal agency. That’s in contrast to being able to use an API to get a firehose of data, or using machine learning for sentiment or language analysis to create new datasets. To me, the most interesting thing about data at the moment is what we don’t collect and what’s unavailable.”
Sarah has built a career on data and data visualization. At the New York Times, she was at the helm of the business graphics team before moving to become Infographics Director at Fortune. In late 2009, she moved to the Wall Street Journal where she spent six years and becoming a visual editor. As well as leading her team at Reuters, the New Yorker teachesData Visualization at the Journalism and Design Program at the New School – indicative of how seriously data journalism is being taken in some quarters perhaps.
Apart from the availability of data, the self-proclaimed “story-form agnostic” says that the use of “dataviz in journalism has moved into the mainstream”.
“We’ve been telling stories with data in sophisticated ways for centuries,”says Sarah. “It’s a not a new form of expression. D3 and programming is the latest enhancement to the language. It’s lovely that it’s now so accessible to broad audiences. If you can bring a reader into a story on a personal level you create a higher level of engagement.”
Given that readers and higher engagement rates are their lifeblood, media organisations will surely need to develop their use of data and data visualization. Slobin sees a bright future for newspapers if they are prepared to take it seriously.
“Data visualization is not something you can get away from”
“Being able to make data stories and being able to present stories in a visual way represents a certain level of sophistication in storytelling,” she says. “The news will always be around, how it’s delivered is what is changing. In the US, we expect data with our stories even in a straightforward way. It’s long been accepted that there is more than one way to tell a story. With people reading on mobile devices, data visualization is not something you can get away from. It’s become part of news gathering and presentation and that’s not receding. If anything, as more tools are out there it will continue to be commonplace to have charting in storytelling.”
Slobin offers a word of caution for those who are willing to dive in without giving thought to what they are hoping to achieve.
“Tools are not simply the answer,” she says. “The paintbrush doesn’t make the artist. We’re teaching a new generation of students to work with data now, so it will be exciting to see what the next D3 is, and what the next wave of visuals looks like. The most important thing for any organisation using data is that it is clean, complete and from a credible source. Without solid, primary sourcing the whole thing falls apart. You need to be able to ask questions of the data, and have clear answers that make stories you want to tell. The presentation needs to be a fair representation of the statistics and also composed clearly so the readers get a takeaway in an instant. And if you find yourself using data to ‘fill a hole’ in the story, don’t use it.”
For more examples of Sarah’s fascinating workplease visit her website. It really is a treat.