July 20, 2016

In June, Stuart Thompson and his team were talking over their coverage of the latest horrific story: The shooting in an Orlando nightclub that left 50 people dead.

Thompson, director of graphics at The Wall Street Journal, oversaw the production of a just-the-facts visual story about the shooting, complete with a diagram of the nightclub, a map of Orlando and photos from the scene.

As they were talking over what worked, one staffer praised an unconventional step: Assigning a member of the graphics team to do all of the research, rather than dividing up the labor or waiting for a reporter to do it.

“After the Orlando shooting, we had the epiphany of assigning duties,” Thompson said. “It sounds so simple — why wouldn’t you just assign one person to do one thing? But we didn’t do that before.”

Thompson couldn’t have known it then, but that simple change would ultimately be used repeatedly to get stories out quickly over the next month as tragedy after tragedy unfolded. Dallas. Nice. Baton Rouge. In a two-week span particularly heavy on big, breaking news, The Wall Street journal’s graphics team used a rapid-response plan that allows it to quickly spin up visual stories in a fraction of the time it once needed.

“Before, we would aim for the next day,” Thompson said. “We would do breaking news stuff and say, ‘let’s think through the different presentation types.’ We would often do things that were interactive, which triples the time you’d have to put into it.”

By contrast, when an attacker killed scores of revelers in Nice, France last week, the graphics team had a visual story online within 40 minutes of beginning the process, Thompson said.

The new approach breaks up the story creation process into smaller tasks that are tackled by different staffers. First, The Wall Street Journal uses Pinpoint, an in-house mapping tool, to create a quick visualization of the relevant area. Then, the staff creates a dedicated Slack channel for the breaking news event. Next, the project’s coordinator (usually Thompson) begins making assignments: One person builds the story, one person reports and researches it, one person copy edits, one person makes sure it all gets posted.

A slew of steps follow: The coordinator begins scheduling staff hours and sends a note to other newsroom teams about the developing project while someone else creates a shared Google Doc and breaking news page. After a couple of copy-edited paragraphs with basic information are ready, the story gets published.

As more information comes in and the story gets more sophisticated, the team keeps iterating.

To better coordinate their efforts, the team works together on Google Docs. They use a markup language (originally developed at The New York Times) called ArchieML that reformats the doc into a format that can be used on its graphics page.

“It lets you use Google Docs as your CMS and gives you a way to let multiple people edit at the same time — and do all the content and do the photos directly in there,” Thompson said. “And that’s a big change from before, when we would send people a link, and they would have to copy-paste changes.”

Early results from the new protocol have been encouraging, Thompson said. The team has produced several “what we know” visual stories to explain big breaking news events, and the interest in each has allowed the Journal’s visual team to exceed their audience goals.

“We have very vague benchmarks for what we consider worthwhile when we publish a project,” Thompson said. “We look at the basic traffic and say, ‘does this reach them?’ And they got several times that.”

With any luck, Thompson and his team won’t have to use their plan anytime soon. But when the next tragedy happens, they’ll be ready.

Correction: A previous version of this post misquoted Thompson. He said “one thing,” not “something.”

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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