I'm Theresa Malone, Head of Visuals at The Guardian. I lead a talented team that reports on news through various visual mediums, such as quick turnaround graphics and long-term visual projects. These projects can range from election results trackers to in-depth investigations and explainers on complex subjects. My role includes overseeing my team and collaborating with the wider newsroom to ensure that the visuals we produce are informative and impactful.
My responsibility is to ensure that the appropriate team members are assigned to the correct projects and are able to perform their roles effectively. I also make sure that my team has a balanced set of skills and plenty of opportunities for training, as well as the tools and support from the wider newsroom they need to succeed. This also means providing space for them to innovate and try new things.
In terms of the wider newsroom, I work to promote the skills and value of visual storytelling and ensure that my team is aligned with the newsroom's strategic priorities. This includes fostering smooth communication and collaboration between my team and other teams.
How do you make room for innovation in a fast-paced environment with quick deadlines?
There are a few different ways we try to keep things fresh and innovative in our visual storytelling. Sometimes, there are projects that we know we need to do that are predetermined in the news calendar, such as a guide to a venue for a sporting event. Instead of approaching these projects in the standard way, we try to learn something new and use different techniques - like 3D technology - even though the project at hand may not necessarily require this approach. It allows us to expand our skillset and it will be quicker for us then to use that skill when it comes to another project that we might not have so much time.
Projects come out of my team in two main ways. Some are self-commissioned by the team, where an interesting data set or idea for a visual storytelling piece is discovered and research is done to support it. We then approach the relevant department for collaboration. Other times, departments will approach us with a special series that they would like to tell visually. In those cases, we have some room to explore and experiment.
My team is always actively keeping an eye on industry trends and discussing what we like and don't like, so we have a sense of what we want to try out. The challenge is finding the right opportunities to implement these ideas. And there's always a little bit of learning going because everyone on the team is really passionate about what they do.
Have you defined any best practices from some of your most successful projects. For example if an article is performing extremely well, why?
From my experience working on many projects, I've learned that it's important to ask certain questions at the start of a project to determine if it's worth investing a lot of time in. Some of the questions we ask ourselves are: What makes this story official and sets it apart from others? Sometimes, people come to us wanting visuals that look different, but do not have a solid basis for how the visuals will be a part of the storytelling. So just wanting something to look different is not a good enough reason for us to take on a project, the visuals must be an integral part of the storytelling.
Our unique selling point is creating visuals that go beyond what text and regular tools can achieve. We find that when we answer questions that our readers have, the projects tend to be more successful because people find them useful.
We often use visuals to explain complicated topics, particularly when it comes to environmental stories, big data leak investigations, or one of our more successful stories last year was about the housing crisis in the UK. It was a visual timeline that juxtaposed data on housing prices in relation to political decisions that were being made over time, readers could scroll through and see the impact of those moments on their current inability to enter the property ladder - answering questions we all have by providing more context and nuance. It's important for us to have access to good source material that we can explore and work with. We need to know we can access data source or a particular source and that there aren't going to be any issues with using the data before we embark on a project.
We also need to consider the practical aspects such as the technical approach we'll use to ensure that the visuals perform well on mobile devices. Often colleagues will come to us with big ideas about a cinematic piece of visual journalism but we need to keep in mind that 70% of our users are going to be seeing this on a mobile phone.
The deadline is also a crucial factor, as we need to consider how much time we have and who needs to be involved and available from different desks since we work exclusively in collaboration with all of the other desks so we need to be realistic about the availability of our colleagues, especially when working with reporters in different countries. As always, with more time and good collaboration, we can push the boundaries of what we do and be more innovative.
When you look at the most successful stories, do you see any common patterns?
One of the most successful projects we published last year was a visual investigation into the Champions League final, where Liverpool fans had traveled to Paris for the match and experienced awful crowded conditions trying to get into the stadium. The authorities later blamed this on the fans. Our team created a visual investigation that delved into the events of that evening, and sought to scrutinize the claims made by authorities that the fans were solely responsible for the issues.
The project was successful in multiple ways:
- It had a strong reach, with high page views and engagement, as measured by attention time.
- We had a set deadline, but had sufficient time to work on the project.
- Our team had access to one of the Guardian's investigative reporters, David Kahn, who collaborated with us on the project. The project editor, Lydia McMullen, had the time to work closely with David and review the details of the events to develop a clear chronology.
- We used visual evidence, including video and photos, to construct a compelling narrative and uncover new details that had not been previously reported.
- We employed 3D technology to provide an immersive and informative visual representation of the areas around the stadium, the routes fans took, and the factors that led to the issues experienced on the night.
- We were able to present an engaging and human portrayal of the events through our visuals.
- The project editor and team collaborated with other internal desks to ensure that the project aligns with the Guardian's strategic priorities, and that communication and collaboration between teams went smoothly.
- The story was relatable and popular, it presented new evidence and all of the conditions existed for us to use design and interaction meaningfully.
What results have you seen when using personalization?
We've had success with personalization, but it really depends on the relatability of the data set and of the project itself.
For example, we ran a series a couple of years ago on the disparity between London and the rest of England. We used a variety of data sets, including serious topics like house prices and rates of depression, as well as more light-hearted topics like the price of a pint in a pub. We allowed readers to input their postcodes and see how their area compared to the rest of the country and London. This project had good engagement, we often produce postcode searches for locally relevant stories as a public service so that readers can find information about their area.
What challenges do you see lying ahead in journalism?
We live in a visual and digital world where people consume information visually more than ever. Storytelling is no longer just the domain of newspapers as it was before.
The domain of visual journalism is a competitive field, the skills that newsrooms need for the team are also the skills that a lot of other industries are looking for as well. Which is why newsrooms need to make a special effort to invest in and nurture the skills needed for visual storytelling, which can be difficult when you see stories about the news industry facing financial challenges.
The news industry is accustomed to short deadlines, but visual journalism takes time and that can be quite challenging for a newsroom.
All that being said, we know from our audience that the visuals we produce are valued and serve as a valuable tool in explaining complex issues and aiding comprehension. Our audience have reported that the use of visuals increases their sense of trust in a news publication, as they feel they are able to see the data for themselves rather than just taking a reporter's word for it.
While there are many positive aspects of visual journalism in the news industry, there are also challenges in investing in it as a discipline.