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Step up your visual journalism skills to stand out in social media

In our study of Millennial news habits, we found that, while there are many pathways to news for young news consumers, social media plays a preeminent role.

Looked at as a whole, 88 percent of Millennials get news from Facebook, 83 percent look to YouTube, and 50 percent stays current through Instagram. These are overwhelmingly visual platforms, where a strong graphic goes a long way in inspiring a reader to share or comment on a story.

You don’t get something like [Snow Fall] without a connection between the people who know how to build new experiences and sketch out new experiences being right next to the people who are reporting.

Dissolving the barriers between the editorial, art, and tech departments in a newsroom helps inspire provocative new story forms that transcend the page as they move across the social networks that younger audiences are populating.

Tyson Evans, editor for newsroom strategy at The New York Times, says there’s a pressing need to understand how to build, tweak, and attempt new forms of storytelling for a digitally native audience. “Snow Fall” became a verb largely because it was the first time words, longform narrative, and multimedia were welded together in a way that hadn’t been done before,” he says. “You don’t get something like that without a connection between the people who know how to build new experiences and sketch out new experiences being right next to the people who are reporting.”

Newsrooms can increase their output of visually rich stories using the following key tactics:

  • Instigate lightweight experiments that remove barriers between the design, editorial, and tech departments and locate these departments in close proximity to one another if possible.
  • If your newsroom doesn’t have a budget for developers or engineers, management could consider bringing people from the local tech community inside your organization under the umbrella of fellowships and innovation labs focused on pairing journalists with engineers.

Instigate lightweight experiments that remove barriers between the design, editorial, and tech

The Bold Italic’s visual editor produced some of our most successful content. Her stories about a 4-year-old kid food reviewer or “SF Rent vs. The Rest of the U.S. Told With Food” garnered such positive reactions from our audience in part because the playful photographic components easily translated across Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, and Pinterest.

But we weren’t content to have all our graphically striking content come from one editor, so we strove to encourage our editorial and art teams to think collectively about new story formats. To that end, we instituted a two-month experiment called the “Design Jam” where once a week the editorial and design teams met first thing in the morning and were required to have a visual reaction to a trending topic live on the site by lunchtime.

These forced parameters were challenging at first, but they eventually got both teams to loosen up and test talents outside their assumed skill sets. Most importantly, Design Jams got us into the habit of turning rapid brainstorming into rapid content creation. The stories we created in these sessions often became the most popular content of the day, encouraging us to use our design-editorial brains more often.

Laura Ramos, The Bold Italic’s former executive producer and Gannett’s former VP of innovation & design, took the Design Jam concept back to Gannett as an example of a lightweight exercise that eases crippling perfectionism and helps test new formats for timely visual content.

Tap the local tech community through fellowships or innovation labs

An increasing number of digital media companies are consciously co-mingling their newsrooms with outside technologists in an attempt to create more compelling content.

BuzzFeed launched its Open Lab Fellowship this year, offering six tech-savvy makers competitive stipends and desks in its San Francisco office for one to two years. The fellows are tasked with creating new journalism aids, getting those tools to the prototyping stage, and then releasing them as open source. The lab is adjacent to the newsroom and the fellows will work directly with the news team.

Even before Open Lab, though, BuzzFeed’s San Francisco Bureau Chief Mat Honan says reporters worked closely with their technologist counterparts. “Not only can they contribute to what we do on the backend, but they can do things like look at a story we’re doing about data and say, ‘No, you know, you’re missing the point on this.’ Or they’ve come up with clever little hacks that have improved our ability to be reporters.” He gives an example of a tool one engineer built that captures tweets even if the user behind them deletes their controversial Twitter account.

We’ve mentioned already the digital native’s expectation to participate or interact with content on some level. Having people in a newsroom who understand how to create an audience experience around data can lead to viral content such as the New York Times’ dialect quiz.

Having people in a newsroom who understand how to create an audience experience around data can lead to viral content such as the New York Times’ dialect quiz.

So where do newsrooms find technologists interested in helping create rich content experiences? Drone journalism innovator Ben Kreimer, BuzzFeed’s Open Lab beta fellow, suggests media organizations look to grassroots groups like Hacks/Hackers, which bring together members in fields ranging from media to engineering in cities around the globe, to find fellows of their own. “Journalism organizations should start drawing from beyond the field of journalism, and in the fields of new media art, engineering, virtual reality, [and] the maker community,” he says.

You don’t need BuzzFeed’s enviable funding to create a hub for new technology in your organization. The New York Daily News’ Innovation Lab is proof that a media company can involve the local tech community in its newsroom without taxing its budget.

Run part time by the Daily News’ General Counsel Cyna Alderman, the Innovation Lab brings in one startup at a time to work alongside reporters. Nieman Lab reports that Alderman focuses on small companies that are creating tools for journalists, and allows them the opportunity to test their work in real time with Daily News reporters in return for giving the publication 5 percent equity in the startup.

Regardless of whether your newsroom has the capacity to go deep with data-rich content or can currently only handle experimenting with the pictorial components to articles, it’s important to aim for graphics-driven storytelling for an audience that makes sense of the news on overwhelmingly visual platforms.

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