The Guts: A closer look at MSNBC’s Geography of Poverty

MSNBC’s Geography of Poverty project is a highly visual look at poverty across the country. Graphics editor Mina Liu and data visualization editor Sam Petulla give us a behind the scenes look at how it came together.

How long did you work on this project? How did you collaborate with the reporter and photographer?

We first started working on this project starting in April, but Amy Pereira, MSNBC’s Director of Photography, had been planning this project with photographer Matt Black for more than a year. This was definitely a project heavy on collaboration—we made sure everyone was on the same page in regards to the central themes and focuses in each region. While Matt photographed his journey, and Trymaine Lee reported from various locations, Amy, Sam and I would come up with the graphics and visual elements for each chapter.

msnbc geography - photography

The map + Instagram interactive is really nice because it accomplishes so many things, such as social media promotion, at once. How did the idea of using Instagram as the photo medium come to be? 

Matt was named Time’s Instagram photographer of the year, and his previous work on Geography of Poverty was posted on Instagram, so using that medium was just a natural extension of the project. With the map, we wanted to accomplish showing Matt’s route across the country and select photos from each stop. That way, the readers can get a sense of each part of his journey.

Did you always know that you wanted this to be a black and white project?

Matt’s style is stark, black and white photographs, so we wanted the design of the site to complement them. We went with minimal use of colors for the rest of the palette on the site.

msnbc geography - graphics

One of the things I was most impressed with was the project really nailed which elements should be interactive, which should be stills/static and when video was appropriate. How did you keep everything straight? 

Because we have a small team and limited production time, we had to really pick and choose what we wanted to be interactive. For each section, we aimed for one or two interactive graphics so the readers can dive deeper into the data themselves. Matt also shoots videos, so we wanted to have them spread out on the site to not only keep the page feeling dynamic, but to also give the reader a further sense of the atmosphere and life in each region.

msnbc geography - the south

I like the data section in the “South” section where the charts and words take the user through the data step by step. That format is very popular right now. Why do you like it?

I like it because it is more interactive than flat or non-scrollable charts. The scroll bar is the closest thing we have to a page turn and can perform a very small, but meaningful, amount of narrative work when used well. The stages of the charts provide an easy way to add emphasis or demonstrate a contrast. The problem of course is you have to write a lot of tedious code! — all the transitions, fades, positionings, etc. Every svg or canvas element needs attention and needs to be stateful. These charts also have the potential to create a much better mobile experience, too (in our case we created steps through them, which is less great).  I’m interested in seeing if we can find a way to make them modular or reusable as for the moment that’s the bottleneck.

A lot of people might forget about MSNBC’s online presence, but this project sure garnered quite a bit of attention. What can we expect form your team in the future? 

We have lots of great projects coming. We just created a new template to host interactive stories. I think we’ll see some very strong showings for the election, as well as new format types that exist alongside our articles and charts.

What is your favorite part of the project? 

Bringing together a lot of different parts of our organization. Digital media companies take all shapes and sizes. In our case, we have enormous expertise in video and multimedia storytelling. The work we’ve done is at the extreme of digital for us, but still managed to include producers and hosts from several shows, our social, homepage and video teams, as well as multiple technology teams on both coasts! Having that kind of depth can make working with a lot of parties seem daunting but we’ve managed to do it very successfully and in a way that’s felt tight-knit. That’s been good.