Should I buy a condo or continue renting? I’d been asking myself that question as I perused Chicago real estate, uncertain how market gains, taxes, tax breaks, maintenance costs, homeowners insurance, mortgage payments, and assessments would add up for me financially. The math always grew fuzzy in my head, and it seemed like a wash.
Then, the perfect story showed up in my Twitter feed: Is It Better To Rent Or Buy? I pulled a few sliders in the interactive visualization. And within a minute, I had my answer. I should buy. A few months later, here I am, typing these words in a condo to call my own.
That's the power of The Upshot, an online news and data visualization portal on the New York Times' website. The Times launched The Upshot in April 2014, entrusting it to the paper's former Washington bureau chief and economics columnist David Leonhardt. At the time, the The Guardian described The Upshot as "combin[ing] analysis of the news with data visualisations," or something like the infographics arm of the New York Times. But to Leonhardt, The Upshot is more of a laboratory where he can lead a team of 17 cross-disciplinary journalists to rethink news as something approachable and even conversational. The goal: to enable readers to understand the news and by extension, the world, better.
In an alternate universe, that's the goal of every major publisher. But we live in the puppy-GIF era. If you aren’t a member of the publishing industry, you might not even realize that companies, like BuzzFeed, Vox, and Fusion, are significant beyond their frequent presence in your Facebook stream. Venture capitalists have shown up to fund big budget digital publications that are mechanized to pump out reliably viral content: listicles, explainers, quizzes, interactive polls, and yep, animal GIFs.
In this strange new world, the New York Times has been forced to shed 100 reporters in the past year at the same time that it is trying to adapt aggressively to the digital market—to varying degrees of success. In 2014, after nearly a decade stuck in the same core design, the Times launched a bold redesign that transformed its dense, link-laden site into something far more legible, with the capacity to support large graphics and interactives. It also launched the NYT Now app, which streamlines the Times's news experience for smartphones. The app failed to entice the lucrative millenial market.
The Upshot is an editorial initiative where the Times can compete with the approachable content of Buzzfeed, Fusion, and Vox, but inform that work with the deep, accurate reporting and data analysis for which the Times is known. I’d have never trusted a mortgage calculator produced by Vox to determine my next living arrangement. The Times is a surer bet.
In less than a year, The Upshot has made its mark on the Times: It brings in 5% of overall traffic to the publication and with just 17 of the New York Times' 1,200 journalists, generated two of the 20 most-viewed stories on nytimes.com in 2014 (as of November 2014, the stat was actually four of the 20 most-viewed stories, but a couple got knocked off the list late in the year). The figures might not be staggering, but they show a clear appetite for the Upshot's accessible approach to news.
"We want to be writing for smart, non-experts," Leonhardt said in a phone interview in November. "And we want to be doing it in a way, that if we have succeeded, they can turn around and explain that topic to someone else. To me, that is the test. To be blunt, for a long time, too much journalism has failed in that. Written in really long sentences, in a somewhat stilted way—often, trying to pack every idea of any significance into the first 250 words. I think that isn’t conversational, and I think it makes comprehension and content harder to understand."
You don’t have to look far to see how this plays out. Read The Upshot's recent piece on a new retirement savings program that the state of Illinois is offering. It’s the first savings account of its kind, a sort of 401K run by the state rather than an employer. The reporter, Josh Barro, doesn’t just write up the news. Nor does he offer the sort of "is this good or is this bad?" point-counterpoint between experts that so often creates a false equivalency in the name of objectivity. The entire piece is infused with casually spoken asides—paragraphs that would surely be cut in traditional print news, like this one:
Of course, you don’t need a 401(k) to set aside money for retirement. Anyone can call up a company like Fidelity or Vanguard and open a Roth I.R.A. substantially similar to the accounts the state is about to give out through Secure Choice. But those accounts aren’t established automatically and funded directly out of workers’ paychecks, both features that are likely to lead to more saving.
The result is a hybrid story—neither a terse news item, nor a formal financial advice column, nor a politically charged response to economic policy. It’s just a smart deconstruction of what’s going on, why it’s important, and how it might affect you, the reader.
Part of what helps sell The Upshot so effectively are its data-driven visualizations. It’s no secret that data visualization, and interactive infographics, are major draws to online media. Predating The Upshot, one of the site’s graphics editors, Josh Katz, published a super viral dialect quiz. Like a geographical psychic, it tracked readers' birthplace simply by the way they pronounced a few different words. The questions were mostly based upon those in the Harvard Dialect Survey, which dates back to 2002. The genius was completely in its presentation; rather than reporting the public results of a data set, the Times turned it into an interactive quiz, making every reader a lab rat.
This dialect quiz became and continues to be the Times’s most read online article of all time. And The Upshot's stories like, one of their top performers of 2014, the aforementioned Is It Better to Rent or Buy?, follows in the dialect quiz’s spiritual footsteps, by asking a reader a series of questions, then spitting out an almost magical conclusion fueled by the omnipotence of logic and research.
Not as many of the Upshot's stories include interactive visual elements as you might think (or, perhaps, as much the Upshot's staff would like). A big reason comes down to the realities of staffing. Of The Upshot’s 17 employees, only three are graphics editors. That leaves six reporters, five editors, a photo editor, and an art director to handle the rest. In turn, reporters may make their own graphics, and the graphics editors also take the role of data-crunching journalists.
"I think it’s important to think of graphics and charts as a very powerful tool, but only a tool in journalism, the same way photos are a tool, quotes are a tool, numbers in a story are a tool," Leonhardt says. "I mean, I love visual journalism. I love charts and graphics. I don’t doubt that the ideal version of any given story would have both a photograph and a graphic. But you can’t think about stories in that way because there are tradeoffs with everything. Part of the question you need to ask yourself is, ‘I’ve just written 600 words that I think helps explain the Jobs Report to people.’ What we’re trying to be strategic about is, ‘What’s the best way for me to spend the rest of the day, and my colleagues to spend the rest of their day?’"
It comes down to real-time production management on a daily basis, deciding if a story needs 1,000 words and a few images, or maybe just 200 words and an in-depth visualization. In a media climate in which what constitutes a news story is more malleable than ever, Leonhardt expects journalists will need to increase their skill sets, to not just become more comfortable with numbers or graphics, but to become more comfortable with coding, too. Reinventing news isn’t just about redesigning news, it’s about redesigning the specialties of the journalists writing it.
"The vast majority of publications basically don’t have enough people who can create webpages," he says. "Honestly, we should be getting to the point where lots of reporters and editors can create webpages. I don’t mean just hitting a button that puts text on the web. I mean something on the way to coding. We’re not there yet. So what do we do?"
I guess we just file this 1,000-word post, then go take that dialect quiz again, and hope our own editor doesn’t notice.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece listed Josh Katz as graphics editor of The Upshot rather than one of the graphics editors.