Saturday, June 23, 2012

The difference between infographics artists and visual journalists

Why the job hunt is so hard, by The Washington Post. See it complete

While editing the interviews in the Profiles section of The Functional Art I came across several common themes. One of them was the role infographics desks should play in media organizations. In most newsrooms, designers are people who passively wait for reporters and editors to give them information to do infographics about. However, quite the opposite is true in the most successful departments. Here's a question I asked Steve Duenes, graphics director at The New York Times:

So you are not an “art” department. You don’t consider yourselves just “artists”.
Certainly, there is an “art” component to what we do, but we are not “graphic artists,” and we are not a service group. We want to eliminate the passivity that suggests we should style a dummy headline and wait for the real journalist to fill it with meaning. We want to report and present the content ourselves. Very often, we work in parallel with other news departments. We pursue stories in ways that are similar to the Metro desk or the National desk, tasking reporters and organizing ourselves to pursue information. This was the drill, for instance, right after the Virginia Tech shootings, in April 2007, and in response to many other breaking-news stories.

And here's Hannah Fairfield, about The Washington Post:

What changed in the newsroom when you were hired?
Years ago, the Post’s graphics department, like teams at most newspapers, was more service-oriented. Artists tended to wait for other desks to ask for graphics, charts, and maps, and bring information and possible ideas for layouts back to them. My vision was that the team needed more independence and autonomy in order to produce really creative, high-impact visual journalism. Based on my experience at The New York Times, I knew it could be done.

The graphics team was really enthusiastic about the change, but I had to win over some other parts of the newsroom. During the first few months, we spent a lot of time talking to editors and reporters from other departments, who brought very specific requests for the kind of infographics they wanted. “I really appreciate this idea you are bringing to us,” I said over and over. “But let’s talk about the story. We will read it, we will make a judgment, and I promise you we will provide the graphic that is right for it.”

I was lucky I had the full support from high-level editors, because this is a pretty profound culture shift. Before I was hired, I was transparent about the fact that I wanted to bring some sweeping changes to the desk: If they wanted service, instead of the kind of autonomy I wanted to implement, they could have hired someone else. 

How did you grow trust? The reason I am asking is that the reality in American newsrooms is not what designers in most other countries experience. In many Latin American and European newsrooms, for instance, infographics designers are second-class citizens, if you know what I mean.
You have to start with both sides. Inside the team, you can empower the infographics designers. Make very clear from the beginning that you expect them to be proactive, that the new standard includes a more engaged approach, and that you will fully support them.

And then, whenever an editor from a different desk comes to “order” a graphic, you say: “I will give this assignment to a person on the team that I completely trust. I know she will be able to deliver. You will not get what you ask for. You will get something that’s even better.”

So you have three people on that equation: the infographics artist, the traditional writer, editor or reporter, and a graphics leader serving as a sort of bridge—at least in a first phase, when everybody is learning what their new roles are. That is a model that could work in any newsroom.