When Colleen McEnaney got the opportunity to work at the Wall Street Journal in the UK, she jumped at the chance. Originally from the US, Colleen now lives in London and works as a graphics editor at the Wall Street Journal. In this spotlight, Colleen chats to us about why visuals and data can enhance a reader’s understanding of a story, the importance of presenting data in a way that creates transparency, the challenges of making complicated interactive visualisations work on mobile devices and why she thinks it’s an incredible time to be working in news.
Can you introduce yourself and talk a little about your professional background? I’m Colleen McEnaney and I’m a visual journalist and developer at the Wall Street Journal currently based in London. I started at the WSJ as an intern while I was studying multimedia journalism and information science at UNC Chapel Hill. After graduation, I spent the summer as an intern on the interactive news desk at The New York Times before starting at the WSJ full time as a news apps developer in the fall of 2014.
Why did you decide to move from the US to work for The Wall Street Journal in the UK? It was a great opportunity to gain international work experience, and I’ve always wanted to live abroad. Luckily the chance to transfer came at a good time for me to take advantage of it.
What do you most like about being a graphics editor at The Wall Street Journal? I like the variety and creativity of the work. On any given day I might be planning and sketching a new project, working on data for a story, making a chart for the paper or creating an interactive visualisation. I also get to work on a wide variety of stories and learn from incredibly knowledgeable reporters and editors.
What’s the most challenging aspect of your job? The most challenging aspect is coordinating across time zones for a huge newsroom. The London graphics team picks up edits on graphics from Hong Kong in the morning and hands off to New York at the end of our day. We work on both long-term and daily projects, so we have to stay on top of enterprise deadlines while being flexible enough to jump in on stories as the news develops.
What do you think about how data is presented in news stories?
I think visuals and data can really enhance a reader’s understanding of a story and draw them into it. They can be a great way to explain complicated details that could otherwise sidetrack the text of a story, and some stories are best told visually.
Presenting data is also a great way to be transparent about the reporting process and to strengthen stories overall.
How do you work with journalists at The Wall Street Journal when it comes to creating data visualisations? Reporters send us notes with details on their stories and what they’d like to show. We then ask about their timeline for publishing and any data they’ve gathered in their reporting. Then it’s a conversation about what might work best for the story and what kind of resources we should devote. If the story is on a topic we will write about many times, we might talk about a larger interactive project that can be embedded across stories.
What are the common mistakes that are made when it comes to how data visualisations are presented in a news story? The issue I see the most often is using maps for data that would be better suited in a chart. A lot of maps inadvertently end up just showing population density rather than anything meaningfully related to the data you use. I think cropped axes are another common issue. Changing the axes can really distort the picture a chart paints, so we’re very conscious of starting scales at zero whenever possible.
In an age where people spend more time scrolling through a story, rather than reading it in its entirety, how do you create charts that capture your audience’s attention? We can create simple, clear charts that take advantage of horizontal space and make a succinct point.
It’s important to provide visuals that reinforce and distill the point of the article, and a clear chart can convey a lot information very quickly.
We can also highlight details that might be relevant to the reader. For example, we can use location data to point the audience directly to the information in a graphic that they would likely find the most engaging.
What trends do you think we will see this year in regards to how data is presented in articles? I think we’ll see less interactivity and more guided narrative in graphics this year. Making complicated interactive visualizations work well on mobile devices is difficult and time consuming. We’re moving toward simpler graphics that guide the reader through the data and surface the information most relevant to them.
What’s next in store for you? Will you be working on any exciting projects? I’ll be working on several projects related to Brexit and various European elections this year. It’s a really incredible time to be working in the news, and we’ll be doing our best to explain some of the changes in Europe and how they’ll affect the global economy.