Tom: Could you tell me your name and what you do?
Marco: My name is Marco Hernandez. I’m a graphics editor at The New York Times. I spent a couple of years in Asia working as a visual journalist with the South China Morning Post and Reuters, and a few years more in Costa Rica working as an infographic designer. I've been doing working on infographics and data visualization for more than 15 years now.
Tom: Let's start with a fundamental question. What does visual storytelling mean to you?
Marco: I think our business is to find stories with visual potential, using any available tools around, either sketching data, 3D modeling, using maps or any other way of visual communication. We put everything together in terms of a unique story for the readers. Our final interest is to provide a creative angle for our readers, not just to read through the story, but to have a different input and something of value.
Tom: Can you tell me about your approach to producing a visual story with the objective of producing a story that is impactful and unique?
Marco: I'm always driven by what arouses curiosity on me. If the story has great visual potential, but is not strong enough, it would lack of impact. The story must be of value for the reader to spend a couple of minutes reading or interacting with it. It's not just about visual appeal; it's about being informative and providing something beyond the aesthetics. In short, a smart analysis of something.
There's no magic recipe for this. It just takes finding the right angle to prove that this story is worth the precious time you are going to spend on this website, which is usually only a couple of minutes if successful.
Tom: I found your stories to be recognizable and unique. What is your approach to building these stories?
Marco: I don't have a step-by-step guide to create stories. Each story evolves on its own. You need to hear the story, the needs of this particular project, and find a way to show people what's the most important or interesting angle of this information.
I often use maps, sketches, sometimes diagrams or video. All to get to the essence of the story and find a way to communicate what I find interesting to readers but I always try to satisfy my own curiosity. If there is something in particular in the story that I want to know more about, probably the readers will want to know more as well.
I think this is a kind of idea deconstruction. You start with a bunch of data with a lot of different things, and then you edit it to have the best of all parts of the story. Each of the stories that I have published over the years involves the work of many editors and other teammates. Feedback from many people makes the story richer and more enjoyable at the end.
Tom: I agree. And so I'm wondering, more specifically, when you mentioned that you want to satisfy your own curiosity, how do you decide how you're going to visualize it? For example, when you find a new obsession and you're diving into the story during the research phase, how do you start? What questions do you ask yourself?
Marco: This might be easier to explain with an example.
Once, I was surfing on Twitter and found an image of a scientist showing the size of a piece of ice that drifted from the Antarctica. It was just a very rare image without any context, so I wondered why I should care about this piece of ice down there? What makes it relevant?
Tons of questions flooded my head right there: maybe it's because it's moving towards an island populated by some kind of unique species that no one knows about? Is this a one off event? Or is this something that happens often, but we ignore? How big is that thing really?
All that came to my mind just by looking this one picture, but nothing around it could give me any answers.
So the first thing I did was to look and see if this was a unique event. Knowing that this might be different because of the size of the part that is following, you can make an assumption that you will find something with potential for a story to tell. Later, when I did more research, I found a dataset of all the ice breaking away from that same area, tracking it to see how it spread across the ocean.
This piece of ice was on a common path, in fact that area was known as the icebergs alley, but this one was different because its size was enormous and it could endanger penguins on its way.
Next thing was “Okay, I have all these nice data. How can I present it to the reader?"
Usually, I do sketches on Photoshop or Illustrator with boxes and try to sort things to a story. There is when I found that I may need something else. Perhaps a little more context, or maybe a diagram to show how big it’s, maybe you can compare this thing to a country size...
Oh, that maybe a thing, how can I show to the reader that this is not a small chunk of ice? Maybe they would not have the sense of scale if I just mention numbers?
Maybe I can compare it with something that might be familiar to someone else, like the size of an island that they know.
The story went out well integrating diagrams, satellite images, sketches and maps. All to explain all those questions that I have when I found the first image.
Tom: That's very helpful. Out of curiosity, how do you start? For example do you ever start with post-its, or do you immediately start with visual tools when you're mapping this out? Do you sketch it out on paper?
Marco: I guess it depends on the other story. Often, I go to my laptop because I can just create small pieces of the story. Then I bring them together in another document just to move things around easier. But maybe if I'm on the field, that's another story. Sometimes the story is out in the field, and it's not very convenient to go out with your large devices. So when I do that, I go out and just sketch on a piece of paper, then come back and make the same process in the laptop.
I think those are different approaches, what you're going to do. But, If you have the possibility to do that and see by yourself and make questions on real time, you may find something else interesting that you haven’r considered.
I was once working in the coverage of the Hong Kong protest, finding a way to visualize the crowds in the streets. But then, when I was there looking down from a bridge, I began to realize that these people had some kind of sign code to communicate in chains through the crowd.
Just hand gestures, they can communicate what kind of things they and move it from the back of the crowd quickly to the front. That's something that I found very interesting, but I never knew if I didn't go there and see for myself.
At the end, that ended up doing another story just by talking with them to learn about how they organize these things. The story explained their ways of communicating without words.
Of course, if you're talking about something that's happening in Antarctica or the Amazon with remote sensing, it's very difficult be there as a journalist.
So yeah, there is no recipe, just follow the story down the rabbit hole.
Tom: Yeah, and on average, how long does it take? Let me rephrase that differently. Do you get a lot of time to produce your stories, or do you have to juggle between urgent visualizations and having a month to produce a visual, for example?
Marco: That's one of the things that I love about this job. It's so diverse that you never do the same thing twice.
Sometimes you are in a rush to publish a breaking news piece, trying to tell a story in the little time as possible. I can come up with a map or with a sketch in one or two hours and publish it. And that's it.
I've been working on a piece here at the Times for months, and I hope that the final result will be something really strong. Meanwhile, I've been doing small things here and there. Sometimes it takes a week, sometimes a month, or these breaking news stories that can be solved in just a couple of hours.
Perhaps I could add that it is not only about the time frames, but also about the diversity of the topics. That's another thing I love about graphics, you can learn from scientists today how climate change is affecting a particular species, and tomorrow, working on breaking news about something that just happened on the other side of the world. Next day, I'll be learning something about the human body with a scientist, who knows.
These things keeps you alive with more appetite to to keep producing and learning things.
Tom: My next question is regarding measuring successful storytelling, specifically in the context of Signals publication. Have you had the opportunity in your role to see the average read time of a story or how much engagement it receives? If so, how do you measure the success of a story?
Marco: Yes, in my experience, success can be measured in different ways. For example, if a story is able to bring attention to an important issue and help a community, then that can be a measurement of success.
However, this doesn't necessarily mean that the story will have high numbers of readers or engagement. It may have reached the right people and had a meaningful impact, even if it didn't have a lot of page views.
We do sometimes receive feedback from our stories, but I like to think that I’m no producing stories to be popular, probably should be our main interest either. Instead, we should aim to produce stories that are informative and shed light on unique angles or perspectives that are not covered elsewhere.
Thinking differently and producing something unique is more important than chasing numbers.
Tom: I agree in terms of success, especially for you as a visual storyteller. I align with you in the sense that success is a broad term. In my objectives, it is not about the number of people that see a story; it is about how deeply they engage with the story. How do you measure that the work was successful?
Marco: I think it is also important to understand that we have not a single kind of reader. Our pages are open to a lot of different backgrounds.
Some people come to The New York Times or to any media just to know the breaking news. Some others will come to find a story with a deeper analysis.
People sometimes take the time to send comments like “I read your story, and this is something that I wish that I had before.” or “I was trying to explain this to my students, and this is a resource I can use to successfully explain it.”
That’s a successful story to me. If my work can help that way, I did it right.
I love when people write down their thoughts about for the work that I just published. Sometimes is a warm message in gratitude, or maybe they want to know more, read your story, and then they ask you “Why are they doing this?” or “Where I can find more about that?” Then you become like a confident with to this reader.
I try to reply all the readers, and sometimes you get engaged in that kind of interaction, which makes me feel that I’m doing something of value, not just burning hours in my chair.
Sometimes you have all these little gems that come to you from the readers, and that's really satisfactory.
Tom: So when you know that you've personally helped someone, and in this case, the measure of success is going to be through comments or through direct contact with you. In these cases where you really felt like you successfully relayed something really complicated and reached people. Do you see any common patterns or best practices that you used?
Marco: I think it is very important to always recognize that you are not working alone and that your words in this story are backed by specialists who have dedicated their lives to this. We are just those processing the information to tell a story. We are a kind of translators to mediate between the expert and readers, that’s all my job.
Keeping close relations with sources is a good thing to do.
Mistakes are another point. Sometimes it’s necessary to upload a correction, but it is also good to also leave a small note acknowledging that error. Sometimes readers can interpret that you are twisting the truth for some reason and not that you did a innocent mistake, so it’s good to admit the error.
Finally, keeping an eye on things that are happening all around. It doesn't matter if this is something that someone else has already published. Maybe you can find another nicer angle. Think of that ‘something’ that is missing on there. Then ask your self “Can I provide something else that is really key here? That's a great way to exercise your skills even if you don't publish version 2.0 of that story.