Embracing success and overcoming what doesn’t work: The Washington Post’s Kat Downs on experimenting in the newsroom

Kat Downs says the key to success in her work is the “collective brainpower” of the people she works with at The Washington Post.

Downs, the graphics director at the Post, gave #SNDSF attendees a visual tour of some of her staff’s projects during her session on Friday morning. But it wasn’t just the final result that attendees saw; she also showed her staff’s ideas that did not really work.

She started off by defining a successful story package is: the sweet point of success is in the intersection of audience, technology and engagement.



Downs brought up a few stories and the lessons they learned along the way.

The Clinton project
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About the project: “This story reveals how Bill and Hillary Clinton have methodically cultivated donors over 40 years, from Little Rock to Washington and then across the globe. Their fundraising methods have created a new blueprint for politicians and their donors.”

Downs’ team experimented with many different types of data visualization. They realized they needed to add humanity to the story, so they settled on focusing on the people instead of the data. To connect readers with historical events for the Clintons, they employed black and white photos.  For every person mentioned in the story, they developed a tagging interaction function:  a little bio pops up once readers hover on the name.

Downs’ lesson learned:
“Open your process to disruption from open ideas. Allow them to find you from unexpected places.”

The waypoint

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About the project: “This is a visual story about migration crisis of the dangers those fleeing war and poverty face crossing the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece.”

The story is heavily photo-driven and video-driven to give users a sense of place and a sense of being there.

At first, the Washington Post team wanted to use a 360-degree video to show how the refugees went through the camp and registered in Athens, Greece. A significant amount of time and effort from the staff went in to producing the video. But, it didn’t turn out the way they expected. It forced Downs and her staff to change direction.

Downs’ lesson learned:
“Be brave – kill your darlings. Aim big and be OK if you fail.”
“Don’t forget the basics, don’t just obsessed with fancy stuff.”

Do you agree with Pope Francis?

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About the project: The Washington Post created this package when Pope Francis visited the United States in fall 2015. They looked at how readers explore the Pope’s words and “share how their views align with Pope’s statements on many different issues, including family, poverty and climate change.”

When they first launched the page, they had two options: readers could agree or disagree with the Pope’s statement. But they realized  it was not the best way to show the diversity of the answers from readers. So, the staff adapted its approach: they decided to add five break points to give a better spectrum of choices. They saw how readers were thinking, and changed it to  better illustrate the results.

Downs’ lesson learned:
“Expect the unexpected and work on the contingencies”
“There isn’t one right way. Showing more makes it easy to discuss.”