Interview: How To Build A Visual Journalism Team

Since January 2019, Deutsche Welle has a visual journalism team. One of its original members is our Eva Lopez. Time and again, people ask her what visual journalism is actually about, why it’s a good idea to support a team like this – and what it takes to keep things going. To discuss those and several other questions, Eva sat down for an interview with her colleague Gianna Grün, data journalism expert and lead coordinator of the new workgroup.

So what is visual journalism?

Well, that's a question we've discussed a lot. Based on conversations with colleagues from other media and looking at many examples of our competitors, we define it as: the art of telling a story that is driven by strong visual elements, i.e. large photos, videos, graphics. Although standard articles may contain these elements as well, we plan for our visual stories to differ in two ways: First of all, we want to give visual elements a greater weight over text. Secondly, we want to make sure text and visual elements intertwine seamlessly. Thus, when we write our storyboard, we ask ourselves how each piece of information contributes to developing, telling or understanding the story and what the best visual form is to do that.

What's the point in having a dedicated visual journalism team–and what makes it special?

Before the visual team we used to work according to what could be called "waterfall principle". A reporter would write a story and at some point realize that a couple of visuals would be nice. He or she would then go to the infographics desk and order them. If the piece was more elaborate, more designers (i.e. specialists for user interface, user experience design and/or interactive design) would become involved. At every step of that process creative potential was lost, as discussions were only bi- or trilateral. Eventually, we decided it would be great to get all stakeholders in one room, so they could work together on a project from the very start as one interdisciplinary team–and harness the full creative potential. We certainly didn't invent that concept ourselves; several media companies like the BBC, The Washington Post, and The Guardian have long-standing experience with producing content like this.

What do you need to get started?

Your organization needs to get behind the project, without any excuses.
It will take time and patience to invite people from different disciplines and have them form a functioning team in which everyone understands the scope of the other team members' work. We've given ourselves a year to see whether this concept can work at DW.

A project like this also requires financial resources, and the return on investment won't be immediate. Quality visual storytelling isn't necessarily something that can be measured in KPIs like "more page impressions than standard articles". Instead, you need to find ways to measure qualitative changes and ask what quality actually means for your company.

Furthermore, if you start a project that tries to go down new paths in a company with longstanding traditions and workflows, you have to overcome the inherent "but we've always done it this way" mentality and convince people to follow you on your new way. Something that really helps here: make sure there is a good reason for every little thing you do or decide. As with every new project, there's criticism–and if you're aware of all the arguments in your editorial, visual or technological discussions, it's much easier to turn that criticism into something constructive that makes your products better.

Most crucial for getting your project off the ground is the mindset of your team members. You need people who are able to work both independently and as a team. Ideally, you find people who are able to identify problems and willing to solve them. Telling stories as an interdisciplinary team works best if you're aware of what others need to know about your work to do theirs better (and vice versa).

What are the advantages and disadvantages of a team like this?

The interdisciplinary approach is the biggest advantage, as it enriches your perspective on literally any topic immediately. At the same time, it's also a disadvantage, because it comes with challenges like the very basic one of speaking the same language, referring to the same concepts with the same words.

In the first months we encouraged our graphics designers to also do journalistic research–something that's not a regular part of their job. Giving someone a task they're not used to perform makes the process a lot slower for a while, but in the long run the learning experience makes collaboration and future projects much faster, as you have a better understanding for one another. This way, you also build bridges that improve production outside your team as well.

What has the visual journalism team been up to so far?

We started out supporting existing projects of editorial teams–like the one of our Africa desk on the African Union summit on internal migration. We added value by turning a standard picture gallery into a picture-chart-gallery and by creating a social media video with sophisticated graphic elements.

We experimented with turning photorealistic images into graphics and incorporating them into our standard CMS articles.

With the set goal to cater to African audiences and explain topics like the future of Europe in an entertaining way, we chose unusual storytelling approaches in our piece "How Ghana can help us understand the EU". This story features one visual language in all media elements.

The biggest step forward was the inhouse-development of our own scrollytelling article format. From a design- and tech- standpoint, we regard our first story (on racism towards migrants and refugees in Europe) as a minimum viable product. We're already in the process of adding new features for future stories.

Anything you'd like to add?

At a conference this year I heard the phrase "success is marginal"–and I think it fits really well with regard to our project. Given our limited resources, we're not off to sudden big leaps–but all our small wins combined bring us closer towards our goal: high quality visual journalism.

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