Morning everyone, we hope you’re staying warm and dry on this wet Sunday. The Eagles take on the Rams in a late evening game tonight and, while the Birds' chances of making the playoffs are slim, perhaps they can pull off an early Christmas miracle. In this week’s Q&A, we sat down with two newsroom colleagues whose work with data, coding and design brings context and creativity to some of our most important stories.
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Each week we go behind the scenes with one of our reporters or editors to discuss their work and the challenges they face along the way. This week, we interviewed news developers Garland Potts and Jared Whalen, who help our reporters elevate their storytelling with graphics, interactive designs, and other tools that help readers understand complex and hard-hitting stories.
How would describe your job to someone who has never heard of it before?
Garland Potts: The job of a news developer means we do a little bit of everything. It’s part traditional web design, part data visualization, part web development. We work with many different departments to make sure the web presentation of specific stories or projects look their best and that they work on all platforms. We also work to build tools for our coworkers to make their workflows easier.
Jared Whalen: I like to describe our job as being a jack of all trades in the visual journalism space. Some projects require a knowledge of data journalism and coding (charts, maps, and data tools), while others are more design heavy (longforms and illustrations). I come from a photojournalism/video background and sometimes use that as well. It’s fun to not be locked into one specific skillset, but rather to borrow from all of them to tell the best story.
What’s been your favorite project to work on so far at the Inquirer?
JW: I really enjoy making maps, so one of my favorite projects was about gerrymandering. When the new Pa. congressional maps were being drawn up, we wanted to create an interesting way to compare the different map proposals that were coming in from various politicians.
Working with reporter Jonathan Lai, I made a tool where a user can select two map proposals and a race from the 2016 election and then see how many of the congressional districts would have gone for either candidate under those new maps. It took a very complicated issue and answered the main question most readers have - how will this impact the vote?
GP: A great thing about my job is that I work in so many different areas of the newsroom – investigations, sports, food etc. – so it is hard to pick just one. Saying that, one of my favorite projects that I have worked on is the yearly Dining Guide. Best of the ‘Burbs, the first dining guide edition that I designed, was by far the biggest project I had done at that time. It included 14 separate pages, interactive maps that could be filtered by price and topic, and special navigation to get you from page to page. The amount of work that went into the writing, photography and organization of everything was extensive and the final product was a hit. This year’s guide, The Classics, was even bigger, included 22 individual pages. It’s such a fun project to be a part of and I also learned quite a bit about where to go for the best food in Philadelphia and the suburbs!
What’s your biggest concern or goal when designing and developing for news that’s different from other industries?
GP: Things change so quickly in the digital world, whether that’s new internet browsers, phone operating systems or upgrades to technology. Making sure what we do is accessible to everyone is always the goal, no matter what device or computer you are using. Keeping in mind all the different ways readers see our content can make projects more complicated, but it always needs to be taken into account when planning and designing. The last thing you want is to spend a lot of time working on a design and then realize that is not accessible to all of our readers that want to see it.
JW: In any industry, the key element of design is usability. In journalism, it is even more important that your design doesn’t get in the way of the information because the stakes are higher. Enhancing the storytelling while delivering the information in a clear and concise way is the goal of any project.
If a reader wanted to do what you do, what’s the most important thing they should learn or know?
GP: There is no set path to this job. News developers have all sorts of backgrounds, from traditional journalism, graphic design, and computer science. I did not study computer science, but rather taught myself a lot of the development tools that I use today. Because of ever-changing technology, the job can change from year to year, so it’s good to be curious about what’s new, willing to try new things and experiment with different platforms.
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