Tom Vaillant: What is your name, what do you do and what is your approach to visual journalism?
My name is Pablo Robles, I am a Costa Rican visual journalist working as a visual/graphics editor with the New York Times covering mainly Asia for International based in Seoul.
Previously, I worked for Bloomberg and South China Morning Post in Hong Kong as a graphics reporter, where I did so many exciting stories from recording videos to coding. Before I was senior graphics editor for the main newspaper in Costa Rica, La Nación, and previously worked as an information designer for government museums and international brands, I’m an undergraduate student of architecture, photojournalism, and graphic design.
My approach to visual journalism involves using a combination of video, photos, diagrams and illustrations to tell stories. I like to observe my surroundings and use that as inspiration for storytelling. However, I also rely on satellite data -a new field for me-, which is taking a big role right now in visual journalism.
Tom Vaillant: Could you give me some examples?
In Hong Kong, Andrea (my wife) and I noticed that many people have poor posture while using their smartphones and some of them have more than one device. We learned that holding a phone at a 45-degree angle increases the weight on the head by six times the normal weight, which is about 4 kilos. This leads to pressure on the neck and is why it's called "text neck syndrome." I read a paper on the topic and decided to conduct my research in one of the densest streets in Hong Kong by observing people for hours and building my database with tons of hours of video and a few spreadsheets, the conclusion was the same.
To my surprise, the story received an honorable mention at the Data Journalism Awards 2020 - Sigma Awards in the category of best Visualization alongside The New York Times. One gold and silver medal in Malofiej, and two bronze medals in the SND. This story was also bought in Spain to promote the healthy use of your smartphone replicating graphics and videos inside the country.
There’s another example of how I use satellite data in my work two years ago I worked on a palm oil project where we found a lot of new fires in Indonesia. We looked at new palm oil concessions and used data and algorithms to analyze the real impact, using a hex grid to locate the most problematic concessions and determine who was breaking the law. Lastly, for NYT I have published a few projects where I use satellite data from tracking Russian private jets as the war started to new illegal airstrips in the amazon.
Tom Vaillant: So you're not just focusing on digital influences, but also incorporating some hands-on, in-person exploration and using your physical environment for inspiration?
_Pablo Robles: _ Absolutely. Back then, I had a lot of freedom to choose my topics and generate new ideas. Being in a smaller organization allowed me to do more hands-on work compared to larger organizations, it’s less frequent now but not impossible. At SCMP I had to do it all - coding, filming, writing, and even creating print versions. I love the print and my background is graphic design.
Tom Vaillant: I'm curious about which stories you think have had the most impact on your audience and why.
Pablo Robles: I can mention a few but I will focus on the 100 Days of Protests rock Hong Kong only, which won dozens of accolades and was featured in scientific papers as a reference for a broader thesis to help to understand the city’s history. We help them by showing daily analysis including maps with the location of the protests and data manually collected, then we create another analysis for a six-month landmark, always trying to explain what happened to local people and the world.
So, no matter how big or small your team is, if you have the opportunity to go into the field and gather your data or talk to people who know about a specific topic, you can create something more interesting and attractive from a typical news article.
Tom Vaillant: do you think there's a way for smaller, local media to engage audiences and spread the truth when they have to compete against visually appealing stories that have more financing and a bigger team? Is there a solution or compromise?**
_Pablo Robles: _ Definitely, over the years I've realized that you don't need to know or use all the fancy tools/effects to tell a story. I used to try and learn everything about new technologies, but eventually, I noticed that keeping it simple is often better (and a healthier option too).
It can be tough for local media to compete against big organizations but It's all about the ideas and reporting (crucial), money isn't everything, but having a good idea and reporting is. Of course, it's easier if you have a big team to pursue ambitious projects but even with a small team, you can create something great if you focus on the right angles.
Tom Vaillant: Since independent creators and local media don’t necessarily have the same access or resources, I’m trying to uncover patterns about strong writing and in-depth stories.
It seems like journalism is in a period of change, and I'm trying to find the balance between something like what The New York Times produces with its beautiful full text and image articles and something simpler that is more relatable and perhaps less interactive. For example, a personalized story based on someone's postcode wouldn't have to be visually stunning, but it would be more relevant to that person. That's what I'm working on, finding meaningful interactions that don't take too much time.
Pablo Robles: If we go back to basics. Let’s say looking at a normal traffic sign, imagine changing the most iconic ones to text only, you’re driving and need to read all quickly while you’re paying attention to the road, well, it's the same concept. Nowadays, we have more and more distractions and less time to read, and that's why visuals or data visualization is taking over the media because your brain can understand visuals so easily and incredibly fast. Additionally, if you can’t explain something easily in one paragraph, you will need a visual to explain it quickly and easily.
Creating custom stories is tricky and hard to do mainly if you don't have a big team but you can use more creative ways. For example, if you want to see how many coffee shops are around your city or multiple cities, you can go there and map them, use Instagram posts, photos, drawings, and everything quantitative can be used. Again I will suggest immersing yourself in your surroundings, it helps to create a more real understanding and connection to your reader than just geolocated stuff.
To finish and from my personal experience, I would suggest sticking with one thing at a time. If you want to create good maps and use mapping for your stories, focus on that for a while. When you feel confident creating maps, then you can start exploring other things and so on. Start with some tutorials and when you feel confident, move on to the next thing. In the beginning, of course, it takes time, but with more experience, you can start incorporating it into your reporting.
Feel free to check my work and if you have any questions, feedback or suggestions let me know.