Beyond NYT 2020: Visual Journalism Isn’t Enough

The New York Times recently released a  report that prescribes changes intended to carry the news organization into 2020 and beyond. A key recommendation: turn up the visuals.

I am proud to have taken part in a previous effort to uplift the visual report at The Times, when I was hired to be the newspaper’s first presentation editor for its Metro and Business sections. Since then I’ve directed graphics at Time magazine, created interactive storytelling apps for iPads and iPhones, and helped companies like Apple and AT&T tell stories more smartly on digital platforms.

In my opinion, the report focuses too heavily on visual journalism. Putting pictures next to words is a step in the right direction but not enough. That’s what we tried to do 20 years ago, launching an uphill battle that continues today. The report states that 12.1 percent of Times stories have accompanying visuals.

Visual journalism is a starting point, yes.

But the emphasis should be on experiential journalism, stories that audiences can make their own.

How that happens:

Integrated storytelling. Blended stories use words, images, video — particularly 360 video — and data to make those stories experiential. These stories come to life when touched or viewed, allowing the audience to drive. Not every story qualifies for this treatment, and too often experiences are bolted on as an afterthought. The best experiential stories are born that way, intended to be blended.

Like a symphony, integrated storytelling brings together writers, photographers, filmmakers, illustrators, statisticians and most importantly, the audience. There is no better laboratory for developing new storytelling formats than The New York Times.

Participatory content. Participatory in two aspects, how audiences consume content and how they respond to it.

• Consumption need not be passive. This weekend’s “You Draw It” story was yet another tremendous example of participatory journalism driven by The Times’ graphics department, as it inserted the audience into the storytelling process. Stories that invite the audience to take part in some way make them personal and relatable, much moreso than a column of words. They teach us about the world, and about ourselves.

• Stories need not end with the last word in an article. Journalism can work like a relay race, where the author hands the baton to the public to take the story forward. The dialogue that follows an article can be, and should be, more impactful than the article itself. Facebook’s recent charge into journalism can help facilitate that conversation in ways never before possible, stirring individuals and communities to discuss and take action.

As there exist opportunities, there are also obstacles. Too often publishers force content into formatted templates to achieve speed, scale and suitability for an increasing number of outlets — Apple News, Facebook — making it harder to make stories special. Resource scarcity is a factor as well. The Times, like everyone, will have to pick its spots.

I’m excited about what comes next for The New York Times, and hope that the organization sets its sights beyond the 12.1 percent figure. Adding more pictures isn’t enough. Increasing audience engagement is what matters most.

Joe Zeff is award-winning multidisciplinary designer and owner of Joe Zeff Design


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Society for News Design


About Joe Zeff

is award-winning multidisciplinary designer and owner of Joe Zeff Design


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