The only reason I went to Larry Buchanan’s session on coding, mapping and reporting was because of the phrase “at the New York Times” attached to the end of its title.
I’ve always loved finding free templates for things like graphs, timelines, and calendars on the internet because they make me feel smart and techy without having to actually do much work, but coding felt like it belonged in the scary dark side of the web right next to hacking and Bitcoin. It was jumbled up letters and numbers that I didn’t understand and was always mildly terrified of. But then I saw the work that Larry did for The New York Times… and I knew it was something I had to learn.
As I’m writing this blog post, I’m struggling with how to describe the things he showed us accurately, and it just occurred to me that I can’t. The point is that the stuff Larry does is uniquely digital. It tells a story in a way that can’t be told in print. It takes you to the arctic and shows you exactly what the melting glaciers look like (in HD). It shows you every single home that was foreclosed in Detroit during the housing recession and it adds up all the money that was lost. It highlights every single crack (I am not exaggerating) that was recovered in a famous but decrepit church in New York City.
The craziest thing: He does it in 15 seconds or less. No long article to read, no 3 minute video to listen to; all you have to do is scroll. Which, according to Larry, is what every American loves to do now: scroll. The analytics show that they don’t click on things and they don’t finish articles, but they can scroll through a feed and look at stuff for HOURS.
In theory, Larry should scare the shit out of me. As a person who loves to write and tell stories through her words and other people’s words, I feel like this guy has me beat. I mean some of his pieces didn’t even need an anchor paragraph let alone full written stories. The ones that did had the articles attached at the very bottom.
Yet Larry isn’t replacing us he’s supplementing us. He’s taking a boring local story about recovering an old church, one I probably wouldn’t read, and making it into an art piece I’d tell my mom about and anyone else who might listen.
I was sitting on my hands trying not to jump out of my seat as The New York Times graphic designer showed us all the work he and his team produced. This kind of stuff is perfect. It silences all the nay-sayers that say real journalism and real reporting are dying. It’s visually interesting and engaging but at the same time requires some real reporting too.
The most exciting thing about Larry is that he isn’t some highly functioning tech wizard. He wasn’t a computer science major in college. He studied journalism and taught himself how to code, thinking it would make him some money free-lancing. He never could’ve guessed it would eventually get him a desk and a byline at The New York Times.
I decided after listening to him speak, hearing about what he does, and seeing what he does, I want to be a Larry. I want to delve into the deep scary world of coding because no online template can produce the kind of visual art that Larry produces.
Here are some online tools and programs he told us about for coding, mapping, and learning how to code. The New York Times actually uses a lot of them.
For mapping: QGIS, Mapbox, Tilemill, Natural Earth, and Open Street Map
Other advice: focus on formatting for phones and tablets because that is what your readers are more likely to be using. Similarly, cut vertical videos for mobile phones so that readers don’t have to flip their device. Also, when working with data and interactive digital media, use google docs for a spread sheet instead of Excel because Excel doesn’t transfer as well to anything.
Here’s the website he showed during the session with all the samples I saw of his work. Be sure to check out the visuals he added to the Justin Bieber and Skrillex video the NYT put out a while back. (Bieber says some dumb stuff about music)