The Guardian US’ interactive editor Gabriel Dance — who previously worked as chief multimedia producer at the New York Times — spoke to TPM about his team’s award-winning gay rights interactive, visualizing news and the projects he hopes to take on next.
How did you become interested in news?
I grew up playing with computers, grew up making websites at a very young age. I was always fascinated by building things on computers, and then by the Internet. I went to college and was like, yeah, I want to do computers. But I realized, computers for me were like a pen is to a writer or a paint brush is to an artist. They facilitated my communication with other people, and also the creation of things.
I realized computers are more of a hobby. Working on computers in and of itself isn’t enough for me. That’s when I said, what do I really like doing as well? And that was writing and the news. It’s always been communication-based. It just took me a long time to realize that’s what I liked about computers, more than the programming in and of itself.
Tell me about making the gay rights interactive a color wheel instead of a map of the U.S.
There are two good reasons not to have a map. The first reason is that everybody has a map of gay marriage in the United States. There is nothing new about it. Which is not to say there’s anything wrong it, there’s just nothing new to it. One of the major charges I put on my team here is that we’re not looking to do the same thing anybody else has. There might be similarities in our projects, but we need to be pushing it to the next level or we need to be taking a new approach. When you have the internet, somebody can just as easily pop over to the New York Times and see that map and pop back. With the internet, what is the point of making the exact same thing that all these other places made?
Part of the intrinsic value of the piece, I think, is that we show seven or eight different levels of gay rights by state by doing it with concentric circles. A map would only be able to show one of those slices at a time. We’re able to put a bunch more information and tell a much richer story by using concentric circles instead of using a map.
The electoral college balloons graphic also avoids a map. Is there a conscious decision to move away from maps?
If somebody else has done it on the internet and they’ve done it really, really well, that’s going to be an internet resource that people use independent of whether they’re New York Times fans or Guardian fans or Washington Post fans. Fundamentally, we’re not looking to recreate anything anybody’s done, and there are a lot of maps out there. For election night results and for our primary results, we use maps. When appropriate, we have no beef with maps.
The goal of the team is to engage and bring the user into the story, so they can be interactive with it, hopefully become a part of the story, and have fun with it.
How did you settle on representing the electoral map with balloons?
It was honestly just a couple of weeks of thinking about it and trying a few different things. Because we were doing this offsite project and because we wanted it to be something that was fun and engaging and interesting, it made it really challenging. I knew nobody really wanted to show up and just see some bar charts. Nobody wanted to see the fever chart of the horse race — those are on every site. So it was this series of constraints. It really had to be fun or playful, based on the URL being a fun or playful idea. I had ideas like, maybe you ride a roller coaster of the poll numbers, maybe there’s some 3D going on.
There is something undeniable, that people love playing with the little bubbles and dragging them around. And so you have this tradeoff , you get an idea when you look at it, but it’s not a bar chart. I believe a lot in finding out why people are so interested in something, and then trying to take that interest and redirect it into whatever project I’m working on.
How much is the more traditional editorial team involved in the interactive projects? And how do you determine what stories would be well represented with interactive graphics?
Nobody I work with nowadays is not thinking about the web. The Guardian has certain things they call obsessions. These obsessions are things like gay rights, the death penalty, gun control — these areas of reporting that they’re going to focus on. We need to choose stories or obsessions that are going to have longer news cycles. That’s why the gay rights is such an effective one. Not only did we launch it at just the right time, but it’s come up several more times. We knew that there were going to be several votes on gay marriage, and other gay rights, throughout the United States throughout the year. So that’s when you go, this is one we’re going to be following, it’s an obsession of The Guardian’s, and we’d like to have an interactive element to go with it.
Most people are modern editors nowadays. They understand my job is a real job, that I know what I’m doing. They contribute their area of expertise and knowledge, which is of paramount importance. And then we try to work with them to get across the point of the message.
What do you make of the fact that publications like the New York Times and The Guardian, companies with legacy newspapers attached to them, are producing so much interactive and multimedia journalism?
I think the institutions that have a real commitment to journalism understand that there is a real future of journalism in interactive news and in interactive storytelling and multimedia storytelling. There’s no silver bullet anymore. There’s no longer just an article, or there’s no longer just a news report on television at 6 p.m. or just the radio in the evenings. There’s a whole bunch of different ways that people are consuming their news nowadays. That’s as affected by technology as it affected by the news and people.
The second part is, it’s expensive. The truth is it’s not super cheap to have the talent we have working here. And the New York Times, they are incredible, probably best graphics in the world. It’s also not exactly a secret how they do it. They hire some of the best people, they pay them well, and they hire more of them than anybody else. It’s the commitment to the journalism, which also includes a financial commitment.
I feel like what we’re doing is certainly as real news as the 3,000-word article that’s coming out or as the wonderful photos or videos. And these companies agree.
How do you gauge the success of the projects?
For me and my team, the way I judge it: Is it a new, creative, engaging idea that pushes the boundaries of interactive journalism?
The second thing for me is if it works. That might sound flip or something, but it’s not. The internet is a messy place. It’s hard to make sure it works on all these people’s browsers. If it doesn’t work, then none of it matters. And then I’ll usually move on to some metrics.
What projects will you focus on after the election?
I have a few obsessions of my own that I’m going to try to push forward a little bit. I think gun control, I’m still very interested in gun control and what’s going on with stand your ground laws. I think we’re going to take a look at women’s rights. With the addition of Heidi Moore, I think the fiscal cliff and everything around the budgets for the next four years are pretty ripe with opportunity to create something new and engaging and hopefully something that furthers the story.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
David Taintor is TPM’s News Editor. He contributes to TPM’s Livewire coverage, among other areas. David is from Chanhassen, Minnesota, where, yes, it gets very cold. Reach him at taintor [at] talkingpointsmemo.com