KCH: Josh, I’ve long been a fan of the information graphics that you’ve produced for the Chronicle. What do you see as the value and purpose for creating these kinds of materials for readers?
Our interactive graphics are a natural continuation of the Chronicle’s journalistic mission: to help our readers understand higher education, get better at their jobs, and make more informed decisions. For some subjects, the traditional article – a long block of text with a photo or two – isn’t the most effective way to do that.
To give one example: all of us in higher ed are increasingly expected to make sense of difficult datasets: graduation rates, admissions trends, compensation, and so on. Is my college or department doing well? How can we do better? Where will our freshmen, our donors, and our employees come from in 10 years? Interactives can suggest specific answers to these questions, while stories can synthesize trends and provide context. The two forms often work best in tandem.
Being able to play around with information – making it personal, turning it around, taking it apart – helps you understand it, in the same way that you learn something different building with Legos than you do reading a book about architecture.
KCH: Why do we see so little of this kind of content in higher education curriculum?
But cost isn’t really the problem. Building great educational software requires a high level of collaboration between instructors, designers, programmers, and marketers that’s rare in traditional higher education. It requires a commitment to building effective teams in two areas, design and programming, that many traditional colleges have ignored and continue to ignore. By contrast, in Silicon Valley, that kind of collaboration and investment is the foundation on which startups are built.
Even Stanford – one of the most tech-savvy places on earth – struggles to integrate interactive tools. Stanford’s medical school gave iPads to all incoming students in 2010, and instructional-technology staff worked with professors to create custom digital materials, including an interactive three-dimensional map of the the brain for anatomy students. But students told me last year that most professors didn’t take advantage of the iPads. And the custom map of the brain was no longer used after a supportive professor stopped teaching the course.
KCH: What kind of educational and professional background is best for people that want to do this kind of work? How did you find yourself doing this kind of work?
I’ve always had two career tracks, designing websites and writing newspaper stories. I ran a web design studio, Keller & Faber, and wrote as a freelance journalist on the side. Later I became the West Coast Correspondent for The Chronicle and did web projects on the side. The fact that these were separate jobs never made sense to me. Interactive news graphics is a compelling way to combine the two fields, to use the conceptual framework of journalism and the techniques of the web.
No particular formal education is needed to do this work. My background was very helpful to me, but I learned many of the day-to-day skills by coming up with a project, searching the internet, and slapping some code together. The exact tool used almost doesn’t matter. The essential skill is to be able to communicate ideas to other people (through words, design, or other means) and at the same time understand moderately technical concepts (such as data analysis or programming). There aren’t enough journalists comfortable in both of these areas.
KCH: What do you see as the next stage for interactive graphics?
I’d hate to make much of a prediction because the field is moving so quickly. But I’m guessing that at some point journalists will have to stop thinking of interactive graphics and news applications as niche categories distinct from articles, photos, and other more traditional forms of storytelling. Well-presented interactive data already forms a basic part of the identity of companies as diverse as Bloomberg, Simple, Nest, eTrade, and Square. It will become a basic part of our identity as news organizations too, and we’ll need to figure out how to support that.