The Seattle Times engages readers, drives dwell time

The Seattle Times is the largest daily newspaper in the state of Washington. We talked to three members of the paper’s team – an editor, a data journalist, and a designer – about how Tableau Public has transformed the way they develop stories and communicate with readers online.

Interview with Cheryl Phillips, Data Enterprise Editor
Interview with Justin Mayo, Computer-Assisted Reporting Specialist
Interview with Whitney Stensrud, Assistant Art Director for Graphics

The Seattle Times is the largest daily newspaper in the state of Washington and the only major daily print paper in Seattle. We talked to three members of the paper's team – an editor, a data journalist, and a designer – about how Tableau Public has transformed the way they develop stories and communicate with readers online.

Tableau: What is the role of data in storytelling at The Seattle Times?
Cheryl Phillips, Data Enterprise Editor: Data is vitally important to any storytelling that we do at The Seattle Times, and almost any news organization out there, because we often sift through and analyze data to be able to tell a trend or story. Especially as data has become more accessible to journalists, it's become more important in terms of understanding what's going on and being able to explain that to our readers.

Tableau: How has the way you deal with data changed over the past five years or so?
Cheryl: Using data in stories has evolved tremendously in the last decade, and especially in the last five years, in terms of being able to put it up online in useful ways, so that readers can drill down and find out what's happening in their neighborhood, or on a particular topic that they're interested in.
Five years ago or ten years ago, I would sometimes get data on a nine-track tape or a reel-to-reel kind of setup that I would have to put into a special machine and extract. I would spend a lot of time just extracting the data, so that I could try to sift through it and make sense of it. Figuring out how to make it useful on the web was almost a nonexistent proposition. There were very few news organizations at that point that were doing a good job of putting data out there in any kind of searchable or visual format.
In the last few years, especially the last two or three years, that has started to change. Journalists have learned programming skills as they've needed to, so that they could display the information. One of the really nice things about Tableau is you don't need to use programming to be able to present the data in a visually compelling way. Up until now, you pretty much had to know how to code and how to do some querying to be able to do that. Now you don't, as long as you understand a little bit about data and you have somebody you can access who understands a little bit about visual design. Or you can learn it yourself, and you can put together presentations that are very compelling.
It's going to continue to evolve because we can now take massive amounts of data and make them searchable and interactive. The data can help tell the story, along with the words on the page or the screen.

Tableau: What's the value to The Seattle Times of making data interactive rather than a static chart?
Cheryl: One of the reasons that interactive data is so important is because it brings our readers in and allows them to engage in our site a little bit more than they might otherwise do. It keeps them involved in the activity of reading our news, and it also allows them to get information that they can use that they wouldn't have by simply reading the story. They can use a Tableau visualization to drill down and find information.

Tableau: Does Tableau play a role in helping journalists at to find and develop their stories?
Cheryl: We try to figure out what our story is, and if it's something that needs to be told. We do that through analyzing or querying the data. The nice thing about Tableau is that it's a full-featured product. You can query the data visually, and that helps inform the reporter about trends. Instead of just trying to look through rows and columns, you can actually see what it looks like on a scatter plot or a fever line or things like that. We use Tableau in the reporting process, and then take that and develop it further to put it online for our readers as a presentation tool.

Tableau: Can you give an example of a story you did with Tableau?
Cheryl: When Ken Griffey, Jr. announced his retirement from baseball, I thought we should take a look at his stats and compare them to other top players. Just take a look and allow our sports fan readers to do the same thing. We were building a whole package to commemorate his career, and we wanted to be able to include a way for our readers to be able to explore that a little bit more. So, we did a Tableau visualization as part of this entire section.

It keeps them involved in the activity of reading our news, and it also allows them to get information that they can use that they wouldn't have by simply reading the story.

Tableau: What feedback have you had on the visualizations you've done, whether from readers or colleagues internally?
Cheryl: When we first started thinking about using Tableau, we had a meeting with some of our graphic design people. We explained what we were doing with Tableau and what we thought was possible. They all thanked us because they had been wanting to get more involved in making graphics interactive online, but they didn't have the tools in place to be able to do it. They're not programmers; they're graphic designers. We could give them data sets and say, "Look, here's where we think the trends are," but for them to be able to put it in a form that is visually compelling for our readers was a game-changer.

Tableau: Has Tableau had an impact on newsroom collaboration?
Cheryl: Yes, collaboration is a key part of Tableau and how we've built it into our structure. I serve as kind of a funnel, along with one of the directors for graphic design. We collaborate on everything. We start with the story idea, and we talk about. Should it make a Tableau visualization? What could it do that would be different that would move the story forward? Then our data specialists and I start building it. Or sometimes the artist starts it. Then we swap back and forth and everybody gives feedback before we decide to actually publish it. It's a very collaborative process, probably much more so than some of our other processes.

Tableau: Is the process different from creating something interactive in Flash? How would you compare the tools?
Cheryl: Building a Flash interactive is a similar process, but we also have to involve some of our online web folks to build it, or at least to make sure that we've got it on the page correctly. We still do a lot of talking back and forth, but there's less doing back and forth. There's less flexibility with those more programming-heavy kind of tools.
Flash is also much more time-intensive for us, and we don't have as many folks who have the time available. Whereas, our bicycle accident visualization, we built in a day with Tableau and launched the very next day. I don't know that I want to do all of them that quickly. I'd like to spend a little more time being thoughtful, but it shows that we can use it for very quick-turnaround types of stories, and that's just really very difficult with Flash.

In terms of resources, we use Flash rarely and only for large projects that merit extra time and attention. With Tableau, we can use it frequently and we can use it on all levels of projects. It could be, for example, a city budget presentation or a long-form investigative project that really needs some extra storytelling visually online.

Tableau: How long does it typically take you to get stories live with Tableau?
Cheryl: It usually takes us about a week before we publish a Tableau project, or sometimes two weeks if it's a really big project that we want to spend a lot of time and care on. But we can publish Tableaus in an afternoon if we need to, and we have done that. Certainly with a breaking news story, we might be inclined to do something like that if it were something that could be told visually using some kind of data.

Tableau: Can you tell us a little bit about the business goals and metrics of The Seattle Times, and how interactive visualizations work with that?
Cheryl: I work in the newsroom, so I don't pay as much attention to the business metrics as some at our paper might, but we do watch what kind of traffic a story or visualization gets. We follow metrics like "most read," "most emailed," and "most commented," and we certainly want our readers to spend time on our site. Anything that engages our readers more is a good tool, and for us it's a public service. Tableau visualizations fall into that category. As an ancillary benefit, it's great that they get traffic and they get a lot of interaction from our reader. And as a public service benefit, it's just vital to us that we're bringing in our readers and allowing them to find their own individual stories in the mix of data that we might present.

Tableau: So how have the Tableau visualizations that you've done performed in terms of traffic, discussion, comments, and so on?
Cheryl: Some of our Tableau visualizations have created a lot of buzz among our readers, and have been sent around and posted on other blogs and things like that. Particularly the bicycle accident visualization that we created got a lot of attention. There were a number of comments on the story talking about the visualization. It was gratifying to see that readers were noticing that we were doing something different, and that it wasn't just a flat, static graphic.
The numbers that we've seen, in terms of traffic on our Tableaus rank right up there with the same level of interaction we get from our stories. So that's, to me, a success because we're getting the same number of readers looking at the visualization as are reading the story, and in some cases, four or five times that number. So, it's a really positive piece of our entire presentation.

Tableau: You spend a lot of time with IRE and other organizations thinking about the future of journalism. How do you see Tableau helping that? Do you feel like The Seattle Times is a leader in data journalism because of what you've been able to do with Tableau?
Cheryl: I've talked to a lot of other journalists in other newsrooms about how they present their data online and what methods they use. There are a number of folks who do their own programming to create searchable data, but there's been a lot of enthusiasm about what can be done with Tableau visualizations. With Tableau, information can be used quickly and turned around to serve readers right away.

Virtually every news organization out there right now is trying to figure out how to make sure that their readers are engaged in what they're providing, and having interactive visualizations on our site is critical to doing that. It keeps us ahead of the curve and ahead of the competition with other news sites. We need to be leaders in our field, and Tableau helps us do that.

Tableau: What is your vision for data journalism at The Seattle Times?
Cheryl: Especially as data becomes more transparent and more available to the general public, our role as journalists – just like with any story – is to sift that information and find the stories within it, and then provide it to the reader in a way that's usable. Using tools is critical: everything from our own programming to using Tableau visualizations to using mapping tools. Enabling the reader to better understand the story and the import is vital to our success as a news organization.
Tableau has helped move us leaps and bounds ahead of where we were, and I can see a use for it in stories on a daily basis. At this point, we're only limited by the amount of hours we can spend building the visualizations.

Tableau: Specifically, what do you see as the value of bringing Tableau visualizations to your readers?
Cheryl: Data visualization is critical to what we do because we want to be able to provide our readers with information that they can use, that will help them sift through a story, and make sure that they can make sense of the news of the day. If we have data that allows our readers to drill down to their neighborhood or drill down into a particular subject or topic that's important to them, then that is something that we need to be doing. Visualizations using Tableau are particularly useful for us, because we can do them so quickly, and we can do them without programming, and we can turn them around in a deadline situation if we need to.

Tableau: How does that play into hyperlocal interests? Does it make it easier to make stories appeal to people in very different communities, like Capitol Hill versus Bellevue?
Cheryl: This is an example of how Tableau visualizations are really useful for us. We're about to launch a visualization on crime in Seattle, and crime is a very hot-button issue for people. They want to know not only, "Are car thefts up," but, "Are there any car thefts on my block?" "Have my neighbors been robbed?" "Do I have to worry about a, a predator three blocks over?"
With Tableau, we can take this crime data, which is difficult to sift through and sometimes in not very friendly jargon, and we can put it into a visualization, so that people can, at a glance, see their neighborhood and how they compare with other neighborhoods. Then they can drill down and see exactly what happened in their area. That is one of those useful tools that helps readers get to what exactly is happening on the ground, on the street, that we would never be able to do in the past, That is so important, especially as hyperlocal sites become more popular.

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