NYTimes 2020 report: What it means for visual journalism, there and elsewhere

By Ron Reason

The New York Times today released its 2020 report, identifying various targets for newsroom innovation and improvement, and there’s lots of good news for visual and multimedia journalists, at the Times and elsewhere. I’ve been following the Times closely since examining its evolution, and spending time with Executive Editor Dean Baquet, in my 2015 master class at the University of Montana, on visual and digital innovation and disruption in the news media. (Here are four big ways we examined the Times, with the help of its staff; here’s our course syllabus.)

Many of the 2020 imperatives stem logically from Times products, innovations and other advancements we studied closely that year. Poynter reports today on some of the broader issues of the new report, but I thought I’d outline some of the key items of interest to visual and digital journalists:

“The report needs to become more visual.”
Notably, this is the first recommendation of the report. “Too much of our daily report remains dominated by long strings of text.” (As a longtime Times subscriber who recently took a hiatus from the print edition, partly due to this concern, I say, “hallelujah.” I’m wowed, but daunted, but multipage investigative reports, and in particular would like a much better job of summarizing key findings for time-starved readers.) Reporters and editors are eager to help make progress in this area. Related, the report urges later on:

“The Times needs a major expansion of its training operation, starting as soon as feasible.”
At a time when newsroom training efforts, at least in the U.S., may be at their lowest in decades, this is a rousing cry for the Times newsroom as well as the industry in general.

“More digitally native storyforms are needed.”
Citing the Times’ popular digital “briefings” products, the report notes the disparity between the dozens of regularly appearing story forms for print, and the need for more in the digital realm. Journalism schools, are you listening?

“More visual journalism supervisors and staff are needed.”
Again, visuals take center stage in a call for staff realignment and expansion: “This new batch of talent must help us move away from traditional, print-focused roles and toward new, multimedia-focused roles, like senior visual journalists shaping both the form and content of coverage. The most high-priority hires should be those of creators, such as reporters, graphics editors, photographers and others who make journalism.” The release of the 2020 report was prefaced by a memo from Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Managing Editor Joe Kahn, confirming plans to hire a dozen new visual-first journalists.

The findings were good news to members of the Times visual team. Tyson Evans, editor for strategy and product, Tweeted: “It’s an incredible moment for the Times.” Larry Buchanan, graphics/multimedia editor, emailed me to agree: “When done right, the visual decisions we’re making are, at their core, journalistic decisions, just as important as what sources to call and whom to quote. It’s fantastic to work at a place that recognizes and values the explanatory and emotional power of visuals and has (and will continue to) invest in talent across the visuals spectrum.”

[New from WIRED’s “News in Crisis” series: How The New York Times is clawing its way to the future.] 

This is great news for J-school students or others who have been working toward news media careers but remain worried about their job prospects. Buchanan agrees: “There are words and then there’s everything else: charts, maps, photos, timelines, quizzes, bots, diagrams, lists, videos, VR, AR, animation, infinite combinations of all of those things. Some students think if they pick writing they can’t pick anything else. That’s not true. In college you can and should try it all. Being a stronger visual journalist makes you a stronger journalist, period. Knowing when something should be a story and when it should be something else is critical. Actually making that something else is what will set you apart. Make cool shit. Publish. Repeat.”

I was intrigued to see the 2020 report include, near its end, excerpts from the in-house newsroom surveys used in the work group’s research. Responses reinforce the report’s strong emphasis on visuals and the staff’s desire for greater support from visual team members:

“It is too hard for a reporter or editor to get help on a special project. Each pod should have a graphics and/or interactives point person. They should be involved with reporting from the beginning, identifying which stories are ripe for media and using their knowledge to make the most of a story.”

“I’m a reporter and I have almost never spoken to a video person.”

“It’s sort of demoralizing to know that your story could be stronger with the help of a graphic, but to also know that you will probably receive no help with it.” 

Having conducted dozens of similar surveys while working on my own redesign projects around the globe, from Dallas to Dubai, I can say that top editors and publishers do take these candid responses very seriously. Often in my own travels I’ve seen urgent, candid remarks like these light a fire under steps toward change – staff restructuring, leadership efforts, communications styles and more.

IN MY OWN VIEW: What’s missing here? As a reader and critic of the newspaper, since my days using it as a teaching tool at Poynter classrooms, I’ve often had daydreams of how the print edition could really evolve to make some waves. How I’d love to someday see a compact (OK, tabloid!) edition of the newspaper. The format allows for far more robust and lively design than broadsheet, and would make a better home for all those visuals targeted in the 2020 report. Forget the multi-section broadsheet – it WILL eventually go away, as it has in much of Europe, so why not experiment now?

A compact edition definitely would make for a more magazine-like experience (a format in which the Times has had great success) and would make all these new visuals much easier to approach and digest visually. Maybe experiment with an edition tailored to those of us on the West Coast? (The new California Today newsletter and app destination is a terrific move in this direction, appealing even to those of us in Oregon, interested in its added attention to climate change, water issues, politics, and outdoor recreation.)

To review the Times’ earlier, meatier 2014 report on innovation, visit this link.

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