We asked Aaron Williams to give us a behind-the-scenes look at how he does his work in The Washington Post newsroom as a graphics reporter. Here’s what he had to say.
How does a story get initiated?
Okay so the pitch process for graphics kind of goes different ways… What’s really great about our team is we’re encouraged to think really broadly and really big, and so typically we just pitch an idea to one of the editors. It’ll be about something that we think is interesting or something that we are really passionate about.
And then from there, we start with what you call sketches. And I literally mean sketches, you know? Pen and paper. Pencil and paper. Kind of just iterating your ideas.
And we have this thing called Open Hours, where anyone on the team can come sit in a room with all of our editors and kind of just bounce ideas off of one another. That allows us to refine some of our pitches.
What happens next?
As we’re researching our projects, we work with the editors to really hone what story we want to tell not just in terms of the content, or in terms of the story, but the visuals that might go with that story. From there, it’s just a matter of refining.
Different projects have different deadlines. Some things we finish in one day, some things we finish in several months to a year depending on the scale of the project.
Our team is very collaborative, so often we’ll get ideas from other folks in the newsroom. Sometimes we’ll work with other folks from inside the newsroom to figure out what story they want to tell and then bring in our skillsets to help tell the story that they’re interested in. So that really ranges… We recently published a project looking at how improvisation works, which was a very great project, I thought. And that was a collaboration between our motion graphics team, the graphics team, video, the Style desk, and photo desk. And so you know, I think a lot of our best projects come from working with people across the newsroom.
Can you walk us through one of your favorite projects?
Going back to how our process works, about well over a year ago I had this idea… There has been a lot of research that looks at how cities have gentrified but I wanted to not really talk about gentrification. I wanted to talk about segregation. And how despite how diverse American cities have become, a lot of different racial groups live in different, segmented parts of the city. So I started with DC, and then I looked at New York, then I looked at Chicago, and I figured, “Well if I can do these three cities, why not do the entire nation?”
And so that kind of set me off on a project that I published last month.
That project had a lot of moving parts–from data viz to reader engagement. How did you develop it?
I worked another colleague of mine, Armand Emamdjomeh, and we decided we were going to create some really fascinating maps to tell the story. We broke down the census data into six categories: black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American and everyone else. We basically assigned a unique color to each race and group, and then generated one dot for roughly every ten people in that spot in the city. What that allowed us to do is create these really stark and fascinating maps of cities all over the US.
So we took that same data and–using MapBox–we were able to create an interactive version of this project that allowed people to explore this data.
On that top of that, we didn’t just show race by color, but we also measured segregation. I worked with several researchers. One at American University here at Washington DC, and then two other researchers in the Chicago area. We were able to show and visually demonstrate how segregated the city is or is not.
I think the power in that story is that I could have written an article that said this is how segregated this city is and kind of walked you through it but instead, using design, using visuals, using data, we were able to tell a story in a way that I don’t think text alone would have done it.
And that’s really why I like working on the team I work with, and I like doing the journalism I do, because it’s entirely unique to our time and place, right?
So yeah, people seem to like it. I didn’t get any hate mail. At least not yet [laughs]. And yeah, I hope to do more projects like that in the future.