Malofiej 20

Malofiej was an exhausting week with many great conversations, fascinating insights, and great company. My sleep-deprived and jet-lagged brain is buzzing with things to write about, and this is only the first of several articles about or inspired by Malofiej. I start with a discussion on why I think The New York Times did so well this year, and what other newspapers can do to catch up.

Co-jurors Andy Kirk and Bryan Christie have already written about their experiences, the process, and some of the reactions to the awards. I do not mean to defer to them entirely here, but I want to focus on some of the things they have not discussed for now.

Malofiej bills itself unofficially as the Pulitzer Prize for Information Graphics, and that is a good description. I was impressed not only by the quality of the work we saw, but also the people I met, both on the jury and at the summit. There were participants there from all over the world, including The New York Times, National Geographic, Scientific American, Die Zeit, some Russian newspapers, etc.

The jury was a broad selection of very talented people from various newspapers and magazines, plus designers, artists, and even academics like yours truly. More than that, though, it was an incredibly friendly and positive group of people. While we certainly didn’t always agree, we became friends almost instantly and all of us were heartbroken when we had to say good bye on Saturday.

I will write more about the selection process later (plus you can check out Andy and Bryan’s descriptions linked above), and focus instead on the results. We picked a total of 111 medals out of over 1500 entries. That was a long and difficult process, and we spent a lot of time discussing the merits of many different pieces. While the selection process was organized very well and the student volunteers shepherded us through it very efficiently, the final presentation of the awards fell a bit short.

Beating the New York Times

During the presentation of the gold medals, there was some discussion about the fact that The New York Times seems to win almost all the awards, and that it’s pointless to even try to beat them. Indeed, the New York Times won four print and two online gold medals, and also was awarded the Best Of Show awards in both the print and online categories. That left only one print gold medal for National Geographic (which also won Best Map) and one online gold for┬áInternet Group do Brasil.

What makes the New York Times so successful? The size of its graphics department is clearly part of the reason, but I don’t think this is simply about resources. In fact, the Guantanamo Detainees graphic that won Best of Show was done by a single person in a single day: Jonathan Corum has posted a great account of how he created it, complete with some intermediary screenshots. He even points to an open-source tool he uses to create charts like this one.

Besides resources, I think that there are three reasons why The New York Times is doing so well, and none of these are insurmountable by smaller papers: editorial control, trust in their readers, and tech savvy. In my conversations with several people from different media, I was shocked by how little control they have over what they work on. They are mostly handed a story and data, and are told to make something with that. The thought to collect their own data or perhaps build up a database of reference data doesn’t seem to occur to them. That may be partially because of a lack of resources, since they are expected to turn projects around quickly and move on to the next one, but there is also a cultural component to it. The New York Times‘ graphics department has a lot more control and as a result needs to collect data and find their own stories.

One topic that came up repeatedly in our discussions with regards to The New York Times is that they trust their readers to deal with a lot of information more than virtually any other paper. The Guantanamo Detainees graphic contains 779 lines, one for each detainee. That’s a lot of data to show in a newspaper, and the chart takes up almost half of a print page for this reason. But showing each individual person this way is quite unusual and requires some careful reading to understand. At the same time, this kind of data density can draw some readers in and scare off others. But the result is that those readers who want to see a lot of detail can do so, and are rewarded with a more interesting experience.

Finally, the level of technical expertise among the people I spoke with was quite low. Many of them have classical design backgrounds with minimal or no programming skills. With that comes a general lack of knowledge of available tools for building maps and visualizations. There are many recent projects, like kartograph.js and D3, that make it very easy to build very interesting things, but they all require at least some programming. The New York Times seems to like building a lot of things themselves from scratch. But leveraging the wealth of open-source tools either already available or being developed with the current excitement over HTML5 should make it possible for even small operations to create stunning and informative information graphics.

Beyond the Gold

Malofiej places a lot of focus on the gold medals, with the silver and bronze categories being all but ignored during the awards presentation and ceremony. That means that gold really counts and that winning means something, but it also short-changes the great work done by the recipients of the silver and bronze medals.

I want to mention two other publications whose work I greatly appreciated even though they did not end up winning gold medals. The South China Morning Post received one silver and two bronze medals, including one for the portfolio by Simon Scarr. Their work was consistently very good and I pushed for gold for one of their graphics but couldn’t get enough of the other jury members to agree. I would not be surprised to see them win a gold medal next year, though. Scarr has a lot of good ideas and the design skills to pull them off. The reason his Iraq withdrawal graphic did not win gold, despite its starkness and power, were technical issues with the bubbles at the bottom and the feeling by some jurors the the page was overloaded with the additional graphics.

The other one that stood out in my opinion was Jan Schwochow/Golden Section Graphics and their IN GRAPHICS magazine. While they “only” won five(!) bronze medals, their work was consistently good and led to lots of discussions. Unfortunately, they have a tendency to overload their work with too much detail which makes it unfocused and at times hard to follow. There were also some decorative flourishes that we didn’t feel were necessary. But the work is very solid and beautiful, and IN GRAPHICS is a unique publication that deserves broad attention.

Conclusions

There is a lot of good work out there, and it’s not all done by just a few people. The New York Times gets a lot of attention because of the amount and quality of work it produces. But besides some undeniable advantages in terms of resources, I think many of the things the Times does right can be implemented by other media as well. In fact, I am convinced that The New York Times could easily be beaten by a group of programmer-journalists who spend a week researching tools available for their work. That kind of person is still rare, but I think we will see more of them very soon.

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