The Seattle Times Engages Readers, Drives Dwell Time

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.

Cheryl Phillips, Data Enterprise Editor

Tableau: What is the role of data in storytelling at The Seattle Times?
Cheryl: 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?

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.
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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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.


Justin Mayo, Computer-Assisted Reporting Specialist

Tableau: What do you do at The Seattle Times?
Justin: Basically I use data to help tell stories, and give quantitative angles to stories, rather than just anecdotal stories. For example, we did a story a few years ago about improperly sealed lawsuits. We could have done a story on one or two lawsuits that were sealed improperly, and left it at that, but we wanted to know how many there were and what judges were involved and what types of cases were involved. And then we actually wanted to go and unseal some of these cases, so we had to find out details about them. That's where I came in and tried to figure out how to use court data to do that. It's just a, a different way to tell a story, a little more in-depth, a little more context, and using quantitative information to give it context.
Tableau: Tell us about one of the stories you've done with Tableau Public.

The first story I did with Tableau Public was using bike accident data. We got data from the City of Seattle Transportation Department, which showed where bike accidents had occurred over a three-year period. We were able to map those out using a GIS program, not Tableau, but we were able to see where those were – on what intersections and what streets those occurred, and that gave us the map of what it looked like.

That was cool, but that would just be a static map in the paper, and people would look at it, and it'd be like a bunch of dots, and I think they'd move on pretty quick. With Tableau, we were able to get that on the web, and then they could dig down into the corners and intersections and the streets where they lived and rode their bikes. They would able to see what was occurring on their block or on their corner. How many accidents? What places in their neighborhood had the highest number of accidents? It gave the power to the user, and it gave them much more detail than we would have ever given them in the paper, with just a static map.

Tableau: So people can answer their own questions.
Justin: Exactly. They can go on the website, answer their own questions, and not just have to take what we give them. They have a little more control.
Tableau: How has using Tableau changed the way you think about stories as a data journalist, in terms of what you can present and the things that you can accomplish with data?
Justin: I spend a lot of time sort of sniffing around data, looking for trends and sorting and resorting. Just looking for stories, basically, is what we're doing here. With Tableau Public, I can share my data explorations earlier in the process, with editors and with other reporters. I can make a little visualization and share it around the newsroom. People can take a look themselves. They can play with it a little bit, and we can all together come to a consensus of what the story might be. That's something that was not been possible without Tableau Public, because I wasn't able to give them that control to sniff around themselves. I had to just produce everything, print out charts and maps, and then they just took what I gave them. They didn't have any input at all – or very limited input about what we could or couldn't do.
Tableau: How long does it take you to pull a Tableau Public story together?
Justin: Usually it's pretty quick to get the visualization together. I've found that the design side of it is the biggest time element, but getting the data into Tableau, manipulating it, and getting some analysis and statistics out is pretty quick. Within hours, we can usually find something interesting to show an editor or another reporter.
Tableau: How long did it take you to learn the program?
Justin: I think it took me about four hours to learn Tableau, just to get some of the basics down to start creating my own visualizations. It really was pretty quick. There's a layer of Tableau that is very intuitive, and then there are deeper layers that take a long time to learn. I'm still learning about it every time I use it.
Tableau: What do you like using about Tableau Public? Does it make your job easier as a data journalist?
Justin: With Tableau, it's really easy to share information quickly with your coworkers or with readers. We can do a story, and we can all look at the same information and manipulate it and ask questions within a very short period of time. That allows us to come to a consensus about what we want to pursue, and what is the actual story, much faster than we could have in the past.
Tableau: Can you tell us about another story that you've worked with Tableau? What was the process of getting the data together and creating the visualization?

One story we're working on right now is using crime data to give readers a way to look at data in their precinct or in their neighborhood, and how it's gone up over the last few years. The process to get the data was pretty straightforward. The police department provides beat-level statistics on their website, which we downloaded. We had to do a little bit of manipulation to get them to work in Tableau, which was very straightforward, but it didn't go right into the program without some data massaging.

Once we got it in Tableau, we could really quickly sort the data by crime type, over time periods, and compare different areas. One thing that jumped out at me quickly was that property crimes were going up quite fast compared to violent crimes. I was able to see that auto thefts were one component of that that was quickly rising. I could have probably got to that conclusion with other tools, but I think Tableau allowed me to do it faster.

And now I've got that set up, so the next time the next monthly stats come out, I can upload those and see how it's gone for the last month. It's an ongoing tool that allows you to check things every once in a while to see what it looks like, without having to redo work. That's one thing I really like about Tableau. You don't have to redo things. Once you've got it the way you like it, it all works the same the next time.

Tableau: What's that process when you get a new month of data?
Justin: To refresh data, you go out and get your original source data, and you run any cleaning that you've done on it to get it to the point where Tableau will like it, and then it's pretty much just opening up Tableau and re-extracting and refreshing data. All of a sudden, pop, your visualization changes, and you've got new data in there. It's nice to see that you don't have to recreate work, which I've done in the past, over and over in Excel or Access. With Tableau, I haven't had to do that.
Tableau: What kind of stories do you envision doing with Tableau Public down the road?

I see two ways we could use Tableau Public down the road. One could be more sort of quick-hit stories that aren't necessarily things that are going to survive more than a few days on our website. It could be in a blog, or it could be in a breaking news story, where we just want to give people a little more interactive data. It doesn't have to be completely polished, but it's quick, and it's easy, and it's done.

Another way to use Tableaus is for standalone applications. Typically, we always want our data to be attached to an actual news story, but I think there's also value in just providing information to readers and users as a standalone application, and I think we'll be doing more of that in the future.

Tableau: You also did a Tableau visualization for the Northwest 100, an annual ranking of the top-performing Northwest-based companies. Why did you decide to do that as an interactive visualization this year instead of the static charts that you've had in the past?
Justin: We did the Northwest 100 interactively because we felt like it gave users much more ability to sort the data for themselves, and actually to see some of the underlying data that we were using to create it. I think that when you can see this on a chart, it's much more engaging. It's not just a static page of numbers. You can actually see something in front of you. I think you're more willing to go in and explore it on your own, and to start seeing what you can for yourself.
Tableau: What kind of feedback have you gotten on these visualizations?
Justin: Internally, in the newsroom, I've had a lot of people react kind of like, "We can do that? I didn't know we could do that. That's pretty cool," because we haven't had a lot of interactive graphics on our website. Typically the ones we've had have been long-term Java or Flash programming type things. We don't have a lot of people that can do that. So, the reaction internally has been surprise that we actually have the resources to do it on our own, and create these things quickly and easily without a lot of programming.
Tableau: How do you see data journalism evolving over the next few years?
Justin: I see data journalism evolving into more interactive graphics, like Tableau provides. I've spent, personally, some hours learning programming and not wanting to learn too much, because it's just not that fun, but I think that the tools like Tableau will allow people like me to do a lot of original reporting, without having to spend time learning the programming behind it. It gives you the way to do interactive graphics, and I think you're going to have to know those types of things in order to do data journalism in the future.

Whitney Stensrud, Assistant Art Director for Graphics

Tableau: What is your role at The Seattle Times?
Whitney: I basically head up the graphics department. We have a team of four people, and we take care of all of the graphics, maps, and charts for the entire paper.
Tableau: What is the role of data in telling stories at The Seattle Times?
Whitney: We handle data on a daily basis. We make stories more intelligible. We try to find a visual component in whatever a story might be. Whenever there's some sort of data that a reporter or a researcher is pointing to in a story, we like to bring it out. It adds credibility to the story. People can have faith in the accuracy. It's just a great supplement to the written stories.
Tableau: How has Tableau Public changed the way you share data?
Whitney: Tableau Public has revolutionized our storytelling on the web. It's basically brought our business section to life on the Internet. It was never visible before. It was hard to just get our flat charts online, and now it's like going from 0 to 60 in 20 minutes, basically. We have interactive charts. We have huge graphics in the business section that have a lot of resources poured into them that on a monthly or quarterly basis. These resources are never seen on the web, and now we've been able to compile them all, interactively, in Tableau. It just tickles every single business reader and editor at the Times, so we are super excited about that. Sports is also getting a little more graphics play online, and it's a whole new world. We love it.
Tableau: What is your process for creating a Tableau Public visualization?

When we tackle a Tableau project, we can't complain about timetables because compared to doing a Flash project or any sort of interactive that we might have done in the past, you can't even compare. Those would be weeks to month-long projects, and now we can do it – when we have to – in a day.

It starts with the data mining, the researcher. If they can grab the information quickly or if Business can feed it quickly to one of us and we can pour it in there, then within a couple hours we can sit down together and have it running and into QA within, probably two or three hours. And that's with multiple components, so it's amazing.

Tableau: Tell me about one or two of the stories that you've done in Tableau Public.

We have a yearly project where we look at the top businesses in the region, and this year we got to put them online interactively. Every other year it's just been a series of flat charts, if we get them all online. This year we were able to crunch the numbers, and figure out which way people would want to see the information. It didn't match the print exactly, which is what we wanted – to have a little bit of a different product online, and also let people play with it and make their own stories, click where they want to click.

We figured out what would be the best intro to the story and made that the centerpiece graphic, and then a couple other little details for each company, should you want to choose by industry or by company. That was the first time we've ever tried to tackle that online, and it was a huge success. It's still getting good play in the business community. That's exactly the kind of stuff they want to see.

We also used Tableau for a sports story when we were comparing Ken Griffey's stats upon his announcement of his retirement, and we wanted to put him up against a number of different players. It's up to the user to decide which player they want to compare and what stats they want to look at. It was a pretty basic idea, but something that we haven't been able to offer our readers. It was a nice supplement to the basic, all-Griffey coverage. It was fun to work with Sports with that, and they're excited about any bell and whistle that we can put on their site.

Tableau: Do you feel that Tableau has made The Seattle Times more competitive as a news organization?
Whitney: I think Tableau came to The Seattle Times at a really good moment in our development. Probably, compared to some of your bigger news organizations, we were a little bit behind, struggling due to cutbacks and small departments. It's hard to make headway in the online world when you're trying to get everything else finished for print. Tableau just offered so much capability and new storytelling devices online without a substantial resource requirement. I think it let us take a secret little leap forward to where we can be competitive now. Our storytelling potential was always there, and we're good at that, but the technical capability wasn't there. With the tools that Tableau provides, we're now feeling like we're competitive in the market for online storytelling.
Tableau: How do you collaborate with data journalists when you design with Tableau?

Our organization is really collaborative to begin with, so we have a good history as far as working really closely together. We've been doing it for print stories for years. So this was a natural fit with the relationships that we rely on already. The data people, if they're driving the story, put in the figures and maybe do a basic layout. Then we'll come and sit with them, anyone from my graphics department. Of course we're interested in style, and how it's going to fit with The Seattle Times identity, but that's secondary to looking at how a user is going to work with the information.

Online is the same as print graphics where we're really interested in navigating our reader through a story. We want to set the hierarchy. We want them to go where we want them to go, and learn the story in steps, instead of leaving them there confused and not knowing where to go. I bring that same sensibility to the Tableau projects, which, since there is so much to click on and so much interactivity, kind of needs a little bit more of that editing and focus. We apply that to whatever the data people have created, as well as the aesthetics. It's a great two-way street because when we're compiling something, or have a best idea of how to, to display information, their familiarity with the data can kind of inform, maybe, a more complex visual. They can make suggestions about layering a little bit more information that we might not have thought to do.

Tableau: How flexible is Tableau in terms of style, the look and feel you need to maintain?
Whitney: Style online is always a challenge, having to deal with universal fonts and people's monitors and what have you. It's a designer's nightmare to begin with, but Tableau has a lot of little tricks. We can annotate. We use pointer boxes a lot in order to set a hierarchy in print graphics. We can change the weight of text and add rollovers. We can set our colors. It pretty much gives us everything we need. We're able to tweak every bit of the visualization we need to in order to get people to do what we want them to do. I can't really ask for more than that.
Tableau: What kind of feedback have you received internally on the visualizations you've done so far?
Whitney: Every morning meeting after a Tableau visualization has run with a story, it's the first thing that we look at before we look at the day's paper. People have just been giddy about it. The business department is so excited that Tableau has come their way, as well as the rest of the newspaper. I think it's just given life to a lot of new stories, and everybody in the newsroom seems to agree. Basically everyone wants Tableau for their stories now.
Tableau: Do you think more of the reporters are going to start using Tableau by themselves?

One concern we've had is that this is going to spread like wildfire through the departments, and we might get to a situation where everybody's creating in Tableau. We wanted to control it first, and then divvy out the training, so that we can know who knows how to do it and when. We're a little more controlling of it than, maybe, other people would think we ought to be, but, when it comes down to trying to keep an eye on projects, it just can get way out of hand. It's easy to learn if people want to dedicate the time to learning it.

We just want to figure out the right way to roll it out in a newsroom where we can control what goes on, because people who spend any time with data know that you can dig to the end of the world and back again in there, and have multiple visualizations of multiple sets of data, but readers don't really want to look at all of that. You can get a little bit too intimate with your data sometimes. My role is to try to rein them in. I really get to the key aspects of what a story is about, and what's the best context to offer people, and then they can go and explore within those parameters, but I try to keep the spread at a slow burn.

Tableau: Tell us about learning Tableau and ramping up your team.

We're still in the process of learning Tableau. As with any new software, there are new instincts and new habits that you need to adopt to use a program. We can get things online that are perfectly good, but we're still finding new questions, new things we can do or want to do, which makes it sort of this ongoing experience.

It's nice that there's no end of the line. We can keep evolving this. As a group, we looked at the tutorials. There's been a lot of collaboration within the people who have been trained on Tableau.

Tableau: As a designer, has Tableau allowed you to be creative in new ways or opened up things you couldn't do before?

It's exciting to get to play in an interactive world online without having to go through the muck of learning AS3, and AS4, and spending time relearning Flash tricks. If we could spend all of our time on that, then maybe we would feel less hungry, but we're coming from a time when we spent all of our resources and our focus on a print world, something that's relatively static. The fact that we can automatically catapult ourselves into an interactive world with Tableau has been invigorating. It gives us the opportunity to play without having to train for many months to get proficient. We can just explore and experiment with how we want something to look and work and function.

It's also nice to because with a static graphic online or in the paper, everything has to be forward at one time. That's all you get, so we have to work so much on weights of fonts and how someone navigates through the print document when everything is there. It's a whole other world to be able to take it all off the screen and say, "OK, how is that going to work now? What do we really want to come forward first, and what can they find later?"

Tableau: Tell me more about that. How do you think about letting readers navigate through a Tableau Public visualization?

Tableau has delivered a new challenge for our department. We have spent so much time controlling readers to do what we want them to do, learning how we want them to learn, and when we want them to learn something. So this is a moment like a parent letting their child go free because we know we're letting the reader go free in this data, and they can do whatever they want. They can click off the thing that we want them to click on, and that's a little scary, and we have to just let them go.

On the flip side of that, it's fun to imagine what stories they might create for themselves. That sense of discovery and adventure is totally new to what we do, and, and I think it's timely for how stories and news are now spread through social networking and people creating their own stories and open-sourcing and all that. It's been a little bit of a trial to let go, but it's definitely provided opportunities to be able to ask, "What different mishmashes can we create here? What different things will they see, and what's the best way of telling those things?" It's pretty fun.

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