SNDLOU: Meet Stephen Beard and Jennifer Imes of the Indy Star
Danielle Rindler: First of all, can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Stephen Beard: I’m a 15-year veteran of news graphics. I report and produce information and data graphics for both digital and print at the Indianapolis Star. Digital work includes everything from interactives to graphics-driven animated videos.
Jennifer Imes: I am the Digital Director at the IndyStar and have been for two years. I oversee the digital production, engagement, social and development teams (basically the fun stuff). I was the Graphics Editor the previous seven years and a graphic journalist prior. I graduated from Ball State University in 1998 with a degree in journalism and spent the first five years of my career roaming from The Baltimore Sun to The Miami Herald and back home to Indy.
DR: How did you get started doing digital work? What’s your favorite part about it?
SB: I came to the Star in 2006 largely because of its commitment to interactive graphics. The kind of work they were doing at the time was incredibly rare for online departments, and it was something I really wanted to learn. With a culture of advice and encouragement among my colleagues, I became sort of a “digital dabbler.” I break code to see how it works, I try new things with video storytelling, and I approach most projects without any preconceived notions of how they should be presented.
JI: The first time I thought about the impact digital could have on graphics was probably back in 2004. I started watching the amazing stuff the Sun-Sentinel was trying out and took a few short courses in Flash. We then hired a guy from the Sun-Sentinel and forced him to teach us everything he knew. At that time we were getting frustrated with the constraints on space in the newspaper and graphics were shrinking, so this was the natural next step. I LOVE everything about digital journalism and visual storytelling. It’s my passion. It allows us as journalists to tell our complete story and engage our audience on different level. We can show our readers how something works, let them hear the sounds and take them to the places we have been. We can break down a process with 3D animation while using voiceover to explain it. We can take mounds of data and make sense of it.
DR: Why are things like data visualization and interactive graphics important to a medium-sized newsroom like the Star?
SB: I think the importance of our interactive is driven by our audience. We have a very robust social media presence governed by our digital team, and it drives in plenty of fresh eyeballs to our journalism. Being inherently visual, interactive content is one more thing we can use to get people talking about us and sharing our work.
JI: I think good data visualization and interactives are extremely important to medium-sized newsrooms for two reasons. One is it’s where, I believe, innovation begins. The conversations of, “Wouldn’t it be cool if …” or “What if our readers could…” need to happen regardless of newsroom size. These conversations set creative minds in motion and push us to develop new ways of telling stories visually. It’s what sets it all in motion. I have seen it. We do something interactive for one story then suddenly everyone wants a special interactive or presentation. The second reason is our readers want them. It’s always been our job to break it down, make sense of it, or show them how something works. Interactives allow us to do this for our readers on their platforms and the way they want it. It keeps us relevant in their eyes.
DR: A lot of newsrooms don’t have the graphics staffs that they once did, so a lot of graphics work gets picked up by designers…what advice would you give to these people, especially if they’re venturing into digital for the first time?
SB: If you’re a staffer straddling both print and digital demands, guard your calendar fiercely and choose your projects judiciously. Aim for higher-impact interactives, establish reasonable deadlines for delivering them and set aside the appropriate time in your schedule to focus on them.
JI: The biggest piece of advice I can give is to find the guy in the room who knows excel and have him teach you data. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a beautifully “designed” graphic or interactive with just horribly represented data. They might look beautiful but are statistically flawed. In most cases, graphics are visual representations of numbers. It’s our responsibility as visual journalists to know how to use numbers.
DR: What is your favorite graphic/project that you’ve worked on?
SB: I’ve always loved cutting buildings open with 3D illustration. My favorite part of that kind of work is the research. I love wearing a hard hat and touring buildings in the construction phase, visually comparing what I’m seeing to what the elevations and CAD drawings say. It’s fun to imagine how people are going to engage that building. Our print and interactive presentation on the Palladium concert hall in Carmel, Ind., in 2012 was very much one of those projects.
JI: It’s been a while since I have had my hands directly in a graphics project but my favorite projects are the animated graphics Stephen’s been knocking out. It’s such a simple way to explain complicated processes using very simple video. It’s an entire story on its own.
DR: Where do you go to for inspiration/ideas?
SB: I do most of my best thinking while distance running. Once I get in a rhythm, I start sorting out the projects I have coming for the day and running through a mental checklist of things I’d like to accomplish. Beyond that, books, current events and a few Twitter faves help stoke the creative fire.
JI: I find inspiration in the strangest places and when I least expect it. I will be watching some documentary with 3D animations and think, “we could do that with story X.” I also love looking through other news sites to see what they are up to. I love finding a tool or something simple we could use on a larger scale.
DR: Why will your presentation at SND LOU be one we won’t want to miss?
SB: I think the takeaway message that will resonate with those in attendance is that while, yes, everyone in your newsroom is talking about the latest cool interactive the NYT or Post did on fill-in-the-blank, you can carve out your own successes on the digital front with nothing more than a laptop, a code editing program and a little curiosity. The playing field is still wide open.
JI: It will be realistic. We know budgets are tight, resources are all but gone, and there is very little support for graphics and interactitves. I used to get so frustrated when I would attend presentations and the presenters would go on about their giant departments and the ability to work on one project for six months. That’s not how most of us work. We will give tips on doing what matters and fighting the newsroom priority battle while still being digitally innovative. We will also give a killer comeback line for all of those editors who walk up and say, “Hey, have you seen that ‘Snow Fall’ thing from the New York Times? Can you do that with my story?”
To register for SND Louisville, click here.