Last week, Slate launched Slate Labs, a collection of their “experiments in multimedia journalism.” Curated by programmer-journalists Chris Wilson and Jeremy Singer-Vine, the project is meant to both show off their past work—from maps to interactive charts to games—and to encourage reader feedback and participation. It even lives on a separate server from the rest of the site so no one has to worry about crashing the main site with a multimedia experience gone awry. The experiments range from the silly (The Dan Brown Plot Generator) to the stirring (an animated map of several oil-spill scenarios).
CJR assistant editor Lauren Kirchner spoke with Slate editor David Plotz and associate editor Chris Wilson about their goals for multimedia journalism, and why every journalist could benefit from a little computer programming knowledge. This is an edited transcript of those conversations, the first of two parts.
What’s your favorite interactive project that you’ve developed so far?
David Plotz: I love the lost jobs map, that one in particular was just a really vivid way to illustrate the depression, and it’s one that we’ve updated frequently. As a tool for seeing how the recession is hitting where it’s hitting, it’s marvelous. People love visual journalism, they love games, and I think in Chris [Wilson], we have somebody who is very masterful in understanding data and how to use it to really make it stand out and move people. Slate is obviously a magazine that was born in text, I suppose, but to really live and thrive in this world, we have to do this well.
How do you decide which stories are worth visualizing and making interactive?
DP: I think the best kinds are stories where there’s a lot of abstraction. With the oil spill, you had stories that were being told from the point of view of being at the well, or being at the marshland or something, the pointillist version of it, that’s very important, but telling it from 200 miles up in the atmosphere [with an interactive map] is in one sense more vivid, or at least a useful addition to the understanding of the story.
Chris Wilson: Certainly any time there’s a big data element, that’s the low-hanging fruit. Maps are one of the most popular things. Any time you try to do any kind of data visualization with graphs and charts, there’s a little bit of a higher bar to get readers interested in it, it’s a bit of a harder sell. But maps, people just love. The job loss map that we did was the most popular thing that we’ve ever done, multimedia wise. My favorite was probably the map of the growth of the Tea Party movement.
I was going to ask about that Tea Party map. To track the growth of the movement, you went to Meetup.com and searched for events and groups tagged “Tea Party” and “politics.” That’s a very creative way to find data, but it’s not exactly an objective measurement. Is that a problem?
CW: That project is a great example of something that’s a bit of a risk in terms of time investment: it took a fairly long time to gather the data, and then it could have turned out that the data just didn’t made sense, or showed no real trend. Then even if it had been accurate, that wouldn’t have necessarily been interesting. There has to be a bit of a smell test. So we looked at the explosions of events around tax day, April 15, and it appeared to mimic reality in a believable way, such that it verified that there was some kind of story there.
How did you actually collect the data?
CW: Far and away the skill that I’ve gotten the most use out of, and the first thing I recommend to anybody who’s interested in this kind of stuff is “screen-scraping.” There’s a free program called screen-scraper, which lets you go through a bunch of Web pages and take the data that you want from them and put it into a spreadsheet. If I had tried to do that by hand, it would have been days and days of tedious copying and pasting. But using this very simple piece of software, you can teach a computer how to do the copying and pasting for you.
When you build the data yourself, you can be fairly certain that no one else is going to have the story, because no one else has the data. We’ve done that a couple of times, and it becomes proprietary because it’s very hard for another publication to replicate what you’ve done.