Friday, June 24, 2016

Len De Groot on news graphics, data journalism, and caring about your audience

I'm busy analyzing the nearly 40 interviews conducted for my dissertation, which deals with how news graphics have changed in the past decade or decade and a half. I can't resist sharing some bits from the raw transcript of the interview with Len De Groot, director of data visualization at the LA Times. Len has a long career in the industry and has always been a visionary. Enjoy.

Asked about what visual and data journalists have in common, and if it has changed at all:
I think there is, and generally, it's curiosity about the world. I think that's what draws people to journalism, is there's a curiosity about the world. A sense of wanting to describe the world to other people. And I think that's sort of a core value that I don't think has ever really changed. People may lose that sense of mission, and fall out of journalism, or decide to leave journalism, but the people who are in it, and stay in it, kind of have that need, right. It's not something that's facile, it's something that's deeply held within people. So really that's sort of the thing that I look at. 
Even then, compared to now, people who were doing good work were doing good work because they were creative. And they were willing to look at the world in different ways and try to explain it. That hasn't changed either. 
What's changed is there are some important proficiencies. Statistical proficiencies. They are much more widespread. It used to be, journalism was the field you went into because you didn't want to do math. There were newsrooms full of people that could vouch to you that either they said it, or someone they know said that. And that's no longer the case. I think there's a growing understanding in most universities that students have to come out being proficient in statistics, if not being able to question. That's really, in an age where graphics and data are so prevalent, if you can't question the data and question the source in a way that is smart, you're going to be misled. That's just the end of the day. People will mislead with graphics. And constantly do mislead with graphics. Some intentional, some out of ineptitude. But it's our job as journalists to know the difference. So, that's really a core skill that I think has been a really strong change for the better.
About the audience:
You know, I really don't know if the audience has changed. I think we've started to care about the audience, and that's a change. We used to care about the audience in a different way. We used to care that we were telling them the things that they needed to know, or things that might interest them. But now, we really have to, because there's so much competition, do it in a way that people, we're telling people stories in ways that they're interested in getting them. And that really does mean a whole host of different techniques. 
When it comes down to it at the end of the day, it's really not about us. And it can't be about us. The moment that it's about us, we lose our audience. I think it's one of the reason we've seen really smart startups do well. Because they realize an audience wanted something and they gave it to them. Whereas journalists would say, well we don't do that. We don't put numbers in headlines. We have a style of writing a headline that contains some gravitas and is very important. And meanwhile no one reads it. I don't know that that's changed. Does human nature change that rapidly? I don't know that it does. I think what's happened is we've started listening, and I think that that's sort of an important thing. 
I don't know. I don't know if the core values of human nature changed, or how frequently they change. My suspicion is that people will go to whatever is the best for them. There's an equilibrium in the world that doesn't involve us. And it's up to us. That equilibrium may be in a screen, or in a phone, or in something else. And it's up to us to understand where that equilibrium is, and be able to tell a story there. And that doesn't mean we don't do the other things too. We do. But we have to be effective at communicating where they are, and where they want to get information. And it may not be a phone. It may be something completely different. In fact, I will bet, that it's going to be something completely different that we don't know of yet. That in 10 years… Actually I'll make this promise: if in 15 years, if things aren't different, I'll retire. Because frankly, I'll be bored. I really do think it's going to change a lot. If it's not changing, then it's probably due to our faults, not the audience.
About storytelling:
Yeah, sort of that idea of storytelling being compression. The idea that when we're doing acts of journalism, we're going into people's lives, and we're taking of their lives, and portions of other people's lives, and we're compressing them into a story, or a way of communicating important information. And that compression started on papers that were this big, and then the papers got this big, and then we were on desktop monitors, and then we're on laptops, and then we're on phones. And so there's been this shrinking of the box in which we tell our story. 
And one of the things for me that's so exciting about immersive storytelling is that box, that little window, opens things back up. Because now we're peering through that little window, and we can't step forward into it, but we can sort of project our intelligence into it. And we have space in which to investigate, in which we can explore as people. And I think that's sort of human nature, to want to explore, to want to find things. 
The question is, is what do we do to tell a story there, in a way that makes people willing to strap something on their face. That's a lot to ask for someone to do. That's a lot to say. Will you put on this clunky headset? The responsibility lies with us, to come up with ways of telling stories that are engaging, and that will make people want to experience things like that. The medium in itself is not any greater or worse than any other medium that's come before, be it radio, print, TV, whatever. 
But it has this expansion, this actual expansion of space, is something that we can try to use, and we can try to leverage. I think I've said this a few times this week that one the white whales, my white whale, is campaign finance datavis. And doing it in a way that people can actually understand it. And it's so hard to do. Where you end up usually, is charts. We end up with charts that are simplified to show overall trends. Or we end up with trends or searchable data. But neither of those things help people understand the data. And we've had this phrase called of following the money. And it's really something that reporters did, that we did as journalists. We followed the money and tell people the result. But I think that we can help people understand important issues by letting them have the journey. And either guiding them through part of it, or letting them explore and discover. Yes.”