Ask a handful of your friends how many zeroes there are in a trillion, and you’re likely to hear a variety of responses ranging from nine to 19. And despite the vast majority of the population being unable to even write the figure—let alone fathom its immensity—the media consistently drops it into stories.
Impressive stats certainly do make great headlines, but they’re of little use if the reader relies on Google as a crutch to comprehend the information being presented.
Last year, BNZ memorably responded to the statistics overload that consumers often face by showing Kiwis what $6 million of shredded money looks like as part of a campaign that aimed to demonstrate how much money mortgage holders pay in interest every four hours.
While extreme in its execution, this approach of representing large numbers in tangible terms rather than as abstractions is becoming increasingly important to journalists. And the nation’s two biggest news publishers, NZME and Fairfax, are both looking at ways to make data more accessible to more readers.
Following on from our story on the work of NZ Herald data editor Harkanwal Singh, we recently also got glimpse of some of the work that the Stuff projects team is doing in this space.
Established in 2012 and headed by John Hartevelt, the Fairfax projects team is similar to Singh’s data journalism department in terms of being lean.
“I work very closely with a data journalist [Andy Fyers] who has been on staff for about 18 months,” says Hartevelt. “In recent times, we’ve formalised the role a little bit … and we’re expanding the team over the next while, so we’ll have a few more staff joining us.”
Hartevelt explains that while his role extends beyond data journalism, the projects team is primarily focused on giving stories a visual lift.
“A big part of my job is taking those stories that haven’t had the engagement that they may have in the past or ones that readers aren’t grasping or aren’t interested in, and using data visualisation to draw more of readers in,” he says.
“It’s about adding value and interest to ongoing stories, as well as coming up with something completely new. I’m always asking journalists to look at what’s on the news at the moment and identify opportunities to use data to add a layer of interest to that story.”
One of the clearest examples of this was the ‘Singletown’ project, which featured a series of interactive maps, news stories, features and video showing the proportion of single people and the ratio of single men to single women in every part of the country.
“It was built on hard data collected by Statistics New Zealand,” says Hartevelt. “We were able to map the whole of New Zealand into close local detail of the proportion of people living in a specific area, and put that in the context of the national picture.”
This series was housed within the life and style section of the Stuff website—which, Hartevelt says, is important, because it shows that data, when presented well, can be interesting across a range of topics.
“People often categorise data-based stories quite narrowly around political-type stories, but we are really doing ourselves a disservice if we only focus on those subject areas,” he says.
“My feeling is that New Zealand’s media as while has made some baby steps with it, and I would see us doing more of it. I would like to see us doing more really high quality data visualisations, more often, across more subjects.”
And it’s not only the subject matter that can vary, but also the ways in which the data is presented.
“We’re putting a lot of resource into video, specifically, so that’s one way that we can tell database stories,” Hartevelt says. “When we did the school report update earlier this year, I put lot of time using an animated video to explain some relatively complex distinctions between two datasets. Trying to explain that on two data sheets was too broad, so the best way to do that was by doing some animation and keeping it short and snappy. And we found that people really responded well to that.”
This content is also mobile optimised, which is important given that half of Stuff’s audience accesses the site via mobile devices.
“People love beautiful things, spread across wide screens, but if it doesn’t translate onto a mobile device, then it’s not of any use to our audience,” says Hartevelt.
“It’s actually quite a useful disciplining thing as well. It’s very easy, particularly with large and complex data sets, to get quite caught up in it all and try to do too much. But I think that some of best and most powerful data visualisations are those that are incredibly simple and intuitive.”
However, producing even a simple data visualisation isn’t necessarily easy. It often involves a finicky process of resizing images, developing an aesthetically pleasing layout and writing complicated code.
“I want more and more visualisations across more of our stories, rather than just for our bigger projects, but it can take quite a while,” admits Hartevelt.
“A data visualisation is quite a difficult thing in terms of coding, and in terms of making data visualisation work across all devices. Trying to get quick wins from data visualisations is really something that we spend quite a while on while on. We’re trialling a web-based service called Infogram at the moment. It allows you to put some numbers in and look at some different data visualisations options, which we can then embed into our stories and to run across all devices.”
Beyond data journalism, Hartevelt says that the project team also serves as a link between journalists and developers when it comes to bringing bigger ideas to life.
He says that journalists across the group often reach out to the projects team with various ideas in terms of how stories are presented on the site.
“I get journalists in group coming to me all the time with ideas on all sorts of different things that they want to pursue. They want attractive ways of telling stories and long-form features. Very often data has nothing to do with it, and it’s just a matter of me linking developers up with some journalists.”
But every idea pitched doesn’t necessarily end up on the developers’ operating table.
“It’s a matter of what we want to prioritise at different times,” says Hartevelt. “Developers always have lots on their plates. We’re constantly updating and changing things. So I have to make damn sure that whatever I’m co-opting them into the team for is going to get bang for our buck. It’s got to be resource well spent.”
It’s often a bargaining game, and Hartevelt says that a strong track record of successful projects goes a long way in terms of increasing the leverage of the projects team when it comes to these discussions.
“That’s why I’m very focused on getting runs on the board and content that works for us and audiences engage in, because it makes that argument for co-opting staff onto the team that much easier.”
And Hartevelt believes that the collaboration between journalists and those who might not be conventionally be associated with the trade will become more common as digital continues to play a bigger role in the industry.
“We’ll see some new characters coming into the newsroom, who perhaps are not as shackled to traditional ways of thinking about news as experienced journalists are. I think that’s something to be excited about as well. Developers, who might have an interest in news, are coming in with entirely new and interesting ways of how to approach stories and issues. I think that type of disruption is very healthy.”