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“Wake Up.” The New York Times’s Wilson Andrews on the Power of Storytelling and the Web

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • To get the most out of digital media, embrace it in ways that go beyond the constraints of traditional print media.
  • Be innovative. Giving people the unexpected is a great way to engage them, and can involve something as small as a whimsical image or a novel interaction.
  • Draw on the experience of a visual storyteller to get the most out of your work. Involving them early in the creative process can add significant value to a piece.

Wilson Andrews is a graphics editor at The New York Times. His work has received global recognition, winning awards from the Malofiej Awards and World Summit, Society for News Design, and the Online News Association. He previously worked at The Washington Post and taught at The University of Maryland. The Communications Network sat down with him to discuss his work and the future of storytelling on the web. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

The Communications Network: Do you consider yourself an artist? Are you a technologist, journalist, storyteller?

Wilson Andrews: I get to wear a lot of different hats. Sometimes I work as a developer. There’s a lot of software that’s being built. We’re also designing as part of the same process. Then a big part of what we do, especially at the beginning of a project, is the same as any reporter or storyteller. We sit down and think about the story we want to tell, how we want to tell it: jotting down some notes, making some sketches, starting out with rough ideas.

I don’t know that there’s any one word that helps describe what I and others in my department do. I think that’s why we’re all called graphics editors, because we all do a lot of different things.

Journalists have always been multidimensional people in a lot of ways. I think the root is using whatever skills you can to tell the story.

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 11.36.19 AM

Click on the image to see the graphic created by Andrews accompanying the article “What’s Next in the Search for Flight 370”

The Communications Network: Journalism is evolving. How do you see your role in that?

Wilson Andrews: We’re no longer constrained by the things that have always been central to newspapers, like evening deadlines and space. Those are two of the biggest differences. The web allows us to do all of these new things that papers never allowed.

Some of the best documentary video around is being produced by newspapers. That’s really exciting because newspapers are no longer just these places where people go to pound out a 10,000 word story. They’re places where people can do that right next to someone that’s creating feature length documentaries right next to someone that’s writing open source code that will allow numerous other people to do really interesting things on the web.

Trying to figure out where all those unique, specialized storytelling abilities can come together and create really interesting projects is where news has the biggest potential to grow. And several newsrooms have already done what’s necessary to break beyond the print paradigm.

The Communications Network: When you hear the word “communications,” what does that conjure up for you?

Wilson Andrews: Power. The ability to communicate is a powerful thing, especially in modern times. But it’s always been that way. The most powerful people in the world have always used communication to come to power. If we’re going to speak truth to power as journalists or as citizens, there has to be an ability to communicate on a wide range of issues, because those in power will always be good at communicating. So there must be those that can check that power.

That may sound strange coming from a visual journalist, but I’ve seen the power of good communications time and time again. The best writers, the best speakers, the best visual journalists, whomever it may be, when they are really are on top of their game and connect with people, it’s so powerful and has the ability to change people’s lives, to change the way people think about things. 

The Communications Network: Take us through the process of your work. What steps have to occur?

Wilson Andrews: Most ideas that we come up with start with a single question or a small idea that piques someone’s interest and we say, “Hey, we want to look into this.” We’ll then report out the idea, collecting relevant data and getting any needed expert input on the story idea and data.

I like to go really quickly from a sketch to the web. These days I spend less time in Illustrator and Photoshop making mockups and more time trying different layouts in the browser with code. From there we’ll refine the design over several iterations until we make something we really like.

The Communications Network: Where does the data come from?

Wilson Andrews: Much of our data is a government dataset that is on an archaic-looking website deep inside a .gov domain. One of the best skills our reporters and graphic editors have is the ability to think of a piece of data and know exactly where to go to get it quickly. There are very few opportunities where we ever pay to get a data set, live election results being a notable exception. The vast majority of what we use to visualize is public data.

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Click on the image to see a graphic created by Andrews during the FIFA World Cup for the article “Messi vs. Maradona”


The Communications Network:
What’s the difference between an interactive graphic and an infographic?

Wilson Andrews: We talk about our work as graphics or projects. Now that we have progressed to the point where we’re doing much more integrated storytelling with articles and video, I think it’s simply visual storytelling on the web. There’s a lot of different forms of that, obviously and I think graphics are a segment of that but a lot of the interactive graphics terminology is outdated as a complete description of what I do. It’s not dead but I think it’s progressed to a point where now it’s more about the integrated visual storytelling idea than separate silos of visual content.

The Communications Network: What are the three big things someone who is interested in developing their own visual storytelling capacity needs to know?

Wilson Andrews: The first thing is to keep an open mind about the way that you can tell stories in today’s society. Those looking to learn should really focus on the power and ability that the web has to connect people.

Second, borrow liberally from the work you admire. I’m constantly inspired by my colleagues and adopt their best techniques for myself as well. There is an amazing sharing ethos that surrounds modern creativity. As long as you’re working with good intentions and not blatantly ripping people off, iterating on others’ work is a great way to move visual storytelling forward.

Lastly, I always try to do something new or surprising in every project I work on. There’s so much competing for our attention these days, it can be hard to stand out and have people show up to your work. A great way to be more successful in that way is to give people the unexpected. Even small touches like a novel interaction or whimsical visual can go a long way in connecting with an audience.

The Communications Network: You’re not just competing with The Washington Post or any number of other media organizations out there. You’re competing with charity:water and the Ford Foundation. What do you make of that?

Wilson Andrews: I’m glad that non-journalists feel empowered and are searching to create their own stories. It’s really sort of common these days to see big corporate brands go out and try to tell us a story to create some kind of viral campaign. If there’s a similar mindset among some nonprofits, that’s smart. But these organizations and companies don’t always have the same set of ethics or guidelines that journalist commonly hold. There is some danger to that because the public may not view the two any differently.

I don’t know if these organizations are competitors as much as they’ll help us to define our stories better. Clearly these organizations have an agenda. They specifically want to reach people to tell a specific story and change their minds about something or get them to act on some idea or issue. And so if they are able to bring new and unique approaches because of that contrast, it can be a positive force for visual communication.

A major benefit is that it wakes everyone up to the power of the web and visual storytelling. It’s good to see there’s a lot more than just a few institutions that are experimenting with the web in an interesting way. I’m all for more people getting into how to reach others on the internet. The more people that do it, the more successes and failures we’ll see. I’m excited about it. It means that more people will get to do the kinds of things I get to do, which I think is great.

A graphic Andrews created for the article "The Federal Budget, Per Person"

Click on the image to see the graphic Andrews created for the article “The Federal Budget, Per Person”

The Communications Network: Are there any organizations out there whose work you really admire?

Wilson Andrews: Periscopic is an interesting company. They describe themselves as a socially-conscious data visualization firm which is a combination of the specific issue-based communication and good visual work. Because of that distinction, they approach projects differently than we at the Times would, so it’s interesting to see what they do. And they could be a model for a nonprofit that wants to create a visual team in-house.

I also appreciate the work of Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg at hint.fm and now as part of a data visualization group at Google called the Big Picture Group. They’ve done some work that has a more academic root and some work that has captured the imagination of the internet like their popular wind map.

The Communications Network: You’re a nonprofit or you’re a foundation. You say to yourself, “Okay, I read this interview. I’m convinced. My organization needs to start thinking about some of the research that we’re either funding or that we’re conducting and new ways of presenting it. How do we go about doing that? What would we need to do?”

Wilson Andrews: If you don’t have someone already on staff that has a good understanding of the digital medium and how the web works, it’s really important to find someone that has that knowledge. Because before you ever hire someone to build great visual stories, you need to know what you’re looking for. Maybe it’s the same person that has the ideas and can build or maybe it’s one person that is really good at web strategy and knows what to look for in a web visual storyteller. I think it depends on where the organization is at that moment.

Then the challenge is identifying the right story or the right idea to turn into an interesting web experience. Many times organizations will approach a new project and they already have hammered out the concepts including every detail about how they want it to work from start to finish.

While it’s great to prep and have a solid plan, it’s also important to enter into a project from the beginning with a really open mind and look to draw expertise from the people that you’ve hired. One thing that has happened in journalism in the last few years is that as visual journalists have become more important to the newsroom, they’ve been inserted earlier and earlier into a story’s life cycle.

Something we love is when reporters include us from the outset of reporting their stories. Being able to work with a reporter from the beginning of a project always results in a much stronger project at the end. It’s most rewarding when there’s a willingness to involve everyone in the idea creation and workflow of the project, to be able to gain expertise from someone who’s done the special thing you hired them for.

That’s important to think about when you’re starting out on this path – think about the expertise that others can bring to your project. Certainly, the organizations have expertise in their field and subject, but not necessarily the expertise in visual storytelling or the web in general. That’s why they’re hiring a specialist, and there should be some sort of process to allowing that other person to elevate their involvement beyond, “Here’s an idea, now help us build it.” It means actually listening to them when they say, “Hey, I’ve done it before and it didn’t really work very well. What if we try a more collaborative way of considering ideas and telling the story?”

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