Thursday, November 1, 2012

Recent Work: Halloween On Wall Street 2012

I spent yesterday evening walking around lower Manhattan for an NPR blog post, which was deserted. Much of that part of the city is still without electricity.
Brooklyn Bridge After Sandy
Lower Manhattan Two Days After Sandy Lower Manhattan Two Days After Sandy Lower Manhattan Two Days After Sandy Lower Manhattan Two Days After Sandy Lower Manhattan Two Days After Sandy

Recent Work for NPR: America's Most Expensive Storms

Here are two simple charts I made for a recent post on America's most expensive storms. 

It's interesting that we continue to speak about storms and their destruction in dollar amounts. The National Hurricane Center had published two different data sets that ranked America's costliest storms in two ways: one compared storms by inflation-adjusted damages they caused; the other data set compared storms by how much damage they would have done if they had hit the same areas with the same magnitude in 2010. 

You can read more about the data here.

Data Docs - an Attempt at Dynamic Video

A few months ago, I was asked by PBS/POV to partake in a hackathon. Filmmakers were paired with developers and online specialists.

I was pulled in to assist the very talented Joe Posner with animated op-ed videos. Our developer partner was Susan McGregor. We ended up conceptualizing a completely different project that we named "Data Docs."

We're still working on putting the piece together and making it functional, but here's the concept:
We want to create animations that explain data and explain both its value as a way to understand the world and its perils to skew reality. These animations would incorporate data that would be scraped live from continuously updated data bases and super-imposed onto pre-composed video animations. This would ensure that our videos would be evergreens and display the most up-to-date data.

We're hoping to get this done sometime before the end of this year. Fingers crossed!

Recent NPR Work: The 47 Percent

Here are two quick charts we made about the 47 percent. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Recent Work from WSJ: Before You Sign: A Private Student Loan Primer

If you're thinking of cosigning a private student loan for your college bound child or grandchild, you might want to do a little homework first. You can watch the video here.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Recent Work: Children in Gainful Occupations

Super bizarre data from a 1920 Census report. 

Read more here.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Learn Stuff!

Over the past few years, I've had the pleasure to teach a variety of students. What veteran journalists and middle schoolers have in common? They like handouts. 

USC Annenberg's Andrew Lih and I firmly believe in the power of checklists and cheat sheets and we've put together a few one-sheeters for folks to take home. I've started putting the few we've developed on my site and will update it as I produce more. 

I'll be developing an online course in data journalism. So look out for more content!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Infographics Graveyard

You can't succeed without failing, they say. Here are a few eye-catching but failed data visualizations.

And a few minimalist econ posters that didn't make the cut:

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bo Xilai: Inside The Scandal

Bo Xilai's story is a juicy and complicated one. I spent a good month's worth of nights and weekends trying to disentangle the story of the ousted Chinese politician with Wall Street Journal reporters and editors. We finally turned it into this 17-minute opus. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Immigrants Working in America

Immigration has always been a subject of interest to me. You can probably tell if you scroll through my portfolio of work. Here are two graphics I did for Planet Money on U.S. workers who were born outside of the country. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A Few Observations That Have Made Video A Little Harder

Character casting. Back in 2007, when I was working on my master's project on Burmese refugees for several months, I knew that would have to do this to find a decent character for documentary. We interviewed dozens of people, went through several agencies and organizations. Some granted us interviews only to vanish after. Some wanted to tell us about their agenda rather than about their story. And some really disliked the camera. Finally, a month and a half into the research process, we arrived at three main characters. It was an arduous, but ultimately rewarding experience. 

Then, after graduation, I entered the world of news. 

The Character vs. the Interviewee 

What happened there was that speed on superseded character. The nutgraf overruled the uniqueness of an individual shown on camera. They had to be representative of a greater story. 

Perhaps that was a newspaper approach to a video package. But it did a number on me. 

For many stories, it became about getting the right quote and finding the person with the appropriate background to match a hypothesis, to fit neatly into an idea. That works for a certain kind of video feature, a news-driven feature. 

On some level this has also crept into some first person narratives told by individuals representative of a larger trend or of a certain human experience.  

There is a lot of heart-tugging work out there in the multimedia-sphere. Master pieces in story crafting, beautifully executed pieces. But sometimes they fall flat of lending their characters a third dimension because they are representing an issue, a trend, a sad saga. 

But that runs the hazard of becoming formulaic. 

I did a lot of reporting trips while I was based in Hong Kong. Trips that lasted 5 or 10 days tops. My life in Asia consisted of a lot of news and very often representative interviewees. It became a straight-forward task to produce stories (though it always remained hard work). I knew my stories were solid, but I started feeling that something was lacking. 

And then -- after listening to the experiences of many documentary filmmakers around me -- it all came back to me. I remembered the Burmese refugees in New York, the hours of footage we wasted trying to find the right people, the effort and time put into that search and the difficulty we had trying to put together these stories. Real characters throw you curve balls; they can be cast as both villains and victims, and they will test your ability to weave together a complex set of facts to paint -- at best -- a Jackson-Pollock-like picture. 

Gosh. How I long for this agony!

Radio vs. Video

Working with some amazing radio reporters also reinforced in me one very crucial thing: most media, even radio, can travel into the past. Video can't. 

There's a lot of work out there and work I've done, that describes things that happened in the past. Or things that happen every day ("What do you do on a typical day?" I hear myself asking). 

"TV where nothing unravels in front of the camera is dead TV," a friend said recently. 

There's a lot of broll gathering in today's multimedia work. In other words, there's a lot of beautiful stuff out there. But there is little where things unravel. 

The best footage requires time, serendipity and trust from your character. It requires a bit of luck. It also requires lots of time for things to happen. On some level perhaps years (depending on how deep you want to be entrenched in something and how long it takes the story you're pursuing to come to its natural conclusion). And yes, add to that technical and aesthetic skill. 

(Re)discovering all this just made me so much more skeptical of my own work, which has been largely driven by news gathering. I will keep working in visual media, don't get me wrong. But it's changed my focus. I used to concentrate on what I realize now are mostly stylistic, methodological aspects of storytelling -- pacing a visually and orally told story, shooting for information and aesthetics, interspersing moments of reflections between anecdotes and action shots.

Now I want real people who do things in front of the camera over time. That'll mean fewer videos. But hopefully better ones, too. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Recent Work: Evan Twyford's Industrial Design for Outer Space

Something I reported back in December. Space is fun. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Personalized Storytelling: You Can't Do Anything Wrong

My last post for ONA as an MJ Bear Fellow. I had a great time. 

Junot Diaz and Min Jin Lee at the Pageturner Literary Festival
Last fall, I found myself in a blizzard-like storm in New York, fighting my way through a thick wall of snow. I had just left my position at the Wall Street Journal in Asia to be with my husband and to pursue full-time reporting. This weather was a reminder of the fact that I was no longer in the comforting tropical climate of Hong Kong and no longer in a comfortable job at a multinational news organization.
I was on my way to the Pageturner Literary Festival to see Junot Diaz speak. He is an author who bedazzled me with his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Coming back to the U.S. had been a bit of an adjustment, and so I was hoping for some advice and counsel — perhaps a shove in the right direction, an uplifting tale of struggle and eventual success from Mr. Diaz.
And he delivered.


“Eleven years is a long time to feel like a loser,” Diaz said at one point in his speech. He was referring to the time it took him to finish his novel about the pudgy Dominican nerd Oscar Wao. Diaz won international acclaim for his book, but it also took him more than a decade to finish it.
He urged the soaking, attentive crowd of aspiring storytellers to be patient with themselves — to give themselves a break.
“When you’re on your sixth year of your novel, and you’ve taught a student how to write a novel in six months, then you start blaming yourself,” he said. “Most of us don’t help ourselves [in those situations]. We tend to double down on the punishment. If the page or the thing [we're] working on is punishing us, we seem to think that that’s somehow a value judgment on ourselves.”
Diaz said we need to give ourselves the same compassion that we do the characters in our stories — in his case they are fictional; in ours they are real.
Ira Glass has a similar plea to young storytellers. Here in this (much-circulated but never old) video, the host and creator of “This American Life” speaks of the need to be patient and continue to produce work — to produce a lot of work and to do so repeatedly, even if the work is not entirely what you want it to be.
It’s not easy to always keep this in mind. We’re young and restless, after all. We want to tell amazing stories. We might go to conflict zones, where we suspect those stories are waiting for us. The falling prices of gadgets and tech gear are on our side, but to be consistently great takes patience with oneself. This is something that I, and perhaps some others in my shoes, lack at times.


Diaz and Min Jin Lee, the author sharing the stage with Diaz, also talked about artistic integrity. They spoke of editors who wanted them to remove parts of their novels that were integral to their stories and characters, such as Korean words or footnotes. Those elements seemed be too “weird” for their audience, according to those editors.
But instead, Diaz and Lee encouraged the audience to listen to their own understanding of what is, and what isn’t, too experimental for their audience.
“They [your editors] are making economic arguments about aesthetic issues,” Diaz said. “The economic argument should not be made because you aren’t going to make much money doing this.”
Their struggles to sell books is perhaps akin to our need to sell our stories to our editors and to the omnivorous Internet. Sometimes the currency we’re dealing with is not the money people will spend on our books, but the traffic, eyeballs and clicks.
But beyond the short-lived, monetary benefits of traffic and the pats on the back you get from your editor, there’s one quality that’s lasting: What is my own definition of personal excellence in my craft, and how can I reach my selected audience? By that, I don’t mean the voiceless masses that makes up the traffic stream to a website, but the audience I choose to move — the people whom I want to reach.
Who knows whether “traditional media” is a platform for bringing the best you can do to your chosen audience? It could be a documentary about an obscure community you send out to selected screenings. It could be an article such as the hauntingly beautiful and absolutely unconventional account of a man in Japan, floating on his roof for days after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami destroyed his village.
There’s nothing wrong with striving to find your own voice, both authors urged. For us, this is something that can, and sometimes cannot, be done in the field of journalism.
“There is the idea that there is this right path,” Diaz said. But if you haven’t taken it “you haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Didn’t take an MFA? You didn’t do anything wrong.
Took you 11 years to write your book? You didn’t do anything wrong.
Don’t feel like writing about your family? You didn’t do anything wrong.
You do feel like writing about your family? You didn’t do anything wrong.”
Well, I’m not sure whether I’m spreading myself too thin by trying to work with every medium. I’m not sure whether I did the right thing by leaving Asia. But I didn’t do anything wrong, either.

Monday, May 14, 2012

50 Years of U.S. Government Spending

And here's another slope graph, this time on government spending. I think this one works a bit better than the previous one. It's clearer that there's a progression from one point to another. 

You can read a bit more about these numbers here.

Update: Wowsers! People love Tufte's approach to data visualization. This graphic was shared more than 10,000 times on Facebook.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Confessions of a convert: How I came to love blogging

Another post I did for the Online News Association. 
Ugh, the blog format. For a lover of long-form magazine stories and documentaries, I was never the biggest fan.
With blogs came shortened word counts, limited visual capabilities and a curtailed shelf life (although that might be arguable).
But necessity is the mother of invention, and there have been a number of folks who took the format, ran with it and converted me (which is good because I now work on a blog).


Here’s one of the hardest things I had to swallow. The kind of journalism I loved to do, the long-form multimedia projects and the mini-sites for special coverage, aren’t the way people enter a website anymore.
Less of this?
How we get to our reading and viewing material has changed. Big destination sites don’t garner the kind of audiences that a series of or even just one well-done shorter piece get.
Yes, long-form journalism — meaning longer articles — might have caught a second wind from the rise of the iPad, the Kindle and other tablets. But special mini-sites haven’t enjoyed the same renaissance — at least that’s what I gather from anecdotal evidence. These sites might not die, but they certainly are going to be rarer.
But just because my work is being parceled into bite-sized posts on online avenues doesn’t mean I have to compromise quality in reporting and multimedia storytelling, right? Here’s why.


Some of the most interesting developments in our recent news gathering — from real-time coverage to more integrated interplay of multimedia elements and text — are perfect for blogs.
One of the first multi-format bloggers I started noticing was a former Wall Street Journal colleague Zach Seward.
Before starting at The Atlantic, the former WSJ social media editor caught my attention with playful posts like this one, titled “Everything the Internet Knows About Me (Because I Asked It To)” or this one, called “Listen to the Obama Campaign’s Soundtrack”.
Everything the Internet Knows about Zach Seward
Everything the Internet Knows about Zach Seward (The Wall Street Journal)
The beauty of these posts is that they are not necessarily bound to text, and they weigh each element equally. As someone who’s always worked on “art for stories,” it’s nice to see someone practice what we always preach: Treat all media equally and use each according to their strength.
Another great development on blogs that’s now gained enough traction to get the attention of the Pulitzer Prizes is live coverage. The Guardian was one of the first publications to fully embrace and then refine the art of live blogging, a news reporting format that has won more prominence with the rise of twitter.
One of the Guardian’s earliest live products, its soccer (or football) live blogs, is a great example of value-added live coverage. The writers are hilarious, well-informed commentators who offer a different view of the game while delivering basic information.
Sports events, awards ceremonies and other “low-pressure” live events also are a great training ground for live coverage of news. Live blogging later became a central tool for the Guardian’s coverage of the Arab Spring, and transformed it into both a news delivery system and a crowd-sourcing platform.
A more traditional print reporter once told me that blog posts are for reporters to “dump” into whatever didn’t make it into the “actual” story, which reduces blogs to the function of traffic-generating byproducts. But I see a blog as a vehicle for experimentation, integrated, multiple-platform storytelling — a tool with specific strengths, useful for certain stories.


Blogs lack depth, some would say. And while you might not get as much out of a 300-word post as you would a 5,000-word article, blogs do offer room for developing a deeper understanding of a story or subject over time.
Serial coverage of a subject can unravel nicely over a blog, which can provide more flexibility to react to recent developments. When we think of superficial blogs, we think of posts that “recycle” other people’s reporting. And while that is part of the blogosphere, there’s some great original reporting in blogs.
The Atlantic, for instance, is rolling out a series on spending, which combines smart reporting with graphics and guest entries. On some level, this is just a way to parcel out great coverage of a subject.
Maybe my long-form projects don’t have to die. They just have to be repackaged.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Evolution of an Infographic: What America Buys

So, I've re-entered the realm of making data look pretty and informative, after spending the past few years in the realm of video. The two things that have been pretty interesting:

1.) There's plenty of data out there, just never the kind of data set you want. Getting that data set takes a lot of phone calls and pestering people.

2.) There's a lot of thought that goes into the clear and good communication of information. And sometimes your favorite graphic will be cut.

That's what happened here.

We had ranked the left-hand column in order of size (with the exception of the amorphous category of 'other') and kept that order for the left column for easier comparison.

But I was a little worried that the changes of our spending would get lost in that comparison. The graphic would force people to read the individual numbers to compare the hierarchy of spending in 1949 and today.

So we tried to visualize the changes in spending in a Tuftean way, using his lesser known model of slopegraphs.

That was a little too minimalist and somewhat confusing. 

The combination of both approaches (and my personal favorite) is shown below: 

All in all, it took us two other, prettier and perhaps more confusing graphics to get back to our original one. We had a vote among colleagues and they voted for the very first bar chart.

Update: later the third version of the graphic became a very useful way to tell stories of change over time. My editor gave a different version of the same graphic-combo a greenlight, which now has become a regular data visualization we use.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Recent Work: Redistricting Explained

The GOP is changing the way the redistricting game is being played. Instead of using it to create additional Republican-controlled districts, they're concentrating on keeping the ones they already have.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Recent Work: Traders Navigate a Murky New World

Another day, another animation.

A dark pool is an electronic platform where investors trade shares privately, away from more transparent stock exchanges. What do they have to hide? Watch this animation to find out:

What's interesting about this story is that it's a very typical example of how complicated the financial rulebook has become for traders. And animation is a great way to show complicated matters.

Zach Wise has done a great job with it for the New York Times "Flipped" video project.

And then there was, of course, this great piece that was one of the first economic animations I've seen:

Saturday, April 7, 2012


A few recent photographs from Chinatown. I've been busy crunching numbers for data visualization projects at work. But that only forces me to take my camera for a walk more often.
Chinatown Chinatown Chinatown

Unfamiliar ground: A few thoughts on international reporting

Shooting from a rooftop in Beijing
Reporting in unfamiliar terrain is exciting. It’s the reason many of us get into the business. But it’s also full of pitfalls for green reporters.
During my time at The Wall Street Journal, I had the good fortune of being sent to many countries and having the guidance of bureau chiefs in those countries. Here are a few words of advice they passed on to me.


One of the first things I had to learn when reporting abroad was that were are a lot of peculiarities in a city or village that looked like a story because I was new to the country. When you take your first stroll through a foreign place as a wide-eyed, curious kid, there seems to be a story around every corner. But, often, there isn’t. As any editor will tell you, a story needs to depict some change — a conflict. It needs to have a newshook. The same rules apply if you’re in a foreign country.
The goal is to avoid cliches and stereotypes. Abroad, you’re more prone to fall for them. It’s important to do sufficient research to build some background knowledge, to soak up previous reporting from local and international media about your proposed story, but more importantly, to make sure you constantly question some of your own biases.
One way to avoid that is to collaborate, not just hire a stringer or translator. (If you must, hire an interpreter, if possible, rather than a translator. There’s a difference, as one of my National Public Radio colleagues recently explained to me. A translator will most likely summarize what is being said, giving you little room to ask follow-up questions. An interpreter will be able to translate what is being said ‘live’, meaning as it’s being said). Try to work with a journalist who is based wherever you’re going, especially if you can bring something to the table that might help him or her, such as technical skills or contacts at larger international organizations.
I was lucky enough to pair up with some excellent reporters, such as blogger and videographer extraordinaire Josh Chin (see below) who runs The Wall Street Journal’sChina Realtime blog, who helped me navigate Beijing’s real estate market and contributed video stories to our multimedia project.
Josh Chin at work


Reporting abroad for an American audience also requires that you and your editor be particularly careful about how you treat your sources.
The Bagehot’s Notebook columnist in the Economist makes a good point about a foreign reporter’s responsibility.
“One of the things you find out fast as a foreign correspondent, especially when reporting from the developing world, is that there is very little to stop from you making things up — except your own conscience. Out in a Chinese field, interviewing a peasant who has had his land stolen, or out in an Afghan refugee camp speaking to victims of Taliban brutality, it soon becomes obvious that if you embellish and improve quotes, nobody is going to find out. Chinese peasants and Afghan refugees are not going to read your work, and are not going to shop you to your editors.”
It might sound obvious, but here’s the gist: Don’t make things up. Don’t embellish or push a story if you discover it falls apart once you’re reporting on the ground. Don’t take short cuts because it’s harder to report in a foreign country.

Shrimp farmer in the Mekong Delta
What’s just as important is that you make sure your sources — especially those in vulnerable, impoverished and often undereducated communities — completely understand the implications of speaking to you and being quoted in an article or shown in a photograph or video that will be distributed in the West. There are varying degrees to which people understand what they are opening themselves up to, and even if people light-heartedly agree to an interview, you want to do everything you can to make sure they understand your intentions, purposes and the possible consequences of their collaboration with you. There are governments that are harsher on their citizens for speaking to the media. It’s your responsibility to keep that in mind when your sources don’t.


Nowadays, you’re writing for a global audience. Yes, that’s not news. But what might be a newer phenomenon is this: Your publication could be targeting new audiences abroad. That’s what The Wall Street Journal was doing while I was in Asia. The newspaper had a Chinese and a Japanese website, a Korean and a Hindi blog, and localized content for Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and India in English.
Iris Chyi, a researcher and assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has been researching newspapers’ localized audiences. She sees localization of content as a key ingredient for the success of news organizations in the future.
“On the one hand, most newspapers should own their local niche (being hyperlocal),” she said in an email exchange. “But certain publications may expand beyond the geographic boundaries to seek online audiences at a higher geographic level.”
What that means is that you have an entirely new audience reading and viewing your stories. That also means you have a host of new fact checkers.
On some level, it also means that you will be kept on your toes — you’ll be serving a much wider audience than your community at home. More importantly, there’s added pressure to accurately portray the community abroad. They are watching now, too. And that is a good thing.