Evolving Newsroom 2: Ashley Kirk, Visual Projects Editor at the Guardian
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I’d like to introduce Ashley Kirk, Visual Projects Editor at the Guardian
What does your title mean in practice?
In practice, my job means thinking of new and exciting ways to tell stories. Rather than just print 400 words in a newspaper, we now have the ability to communicate stories through a wide variety of text, images, graphics and interactives - in print and online. I produce these kinds of visualisations to help tell stories better. These stories can be exclusive ones I have found by digging through datasets, or collaborations with other reporters in the Guardian’s wider newsroom.
Where does the role sit/what department does your role report to?
I'm part of the Visuals team within the Guardian's multimedia division. We have a wide range of skills in the team, including developers, graphic artists, designers, journalists and project managers.
When was the role created, what attracted you to it and what is your background?
I only started my role as Visual Projects Editor in 2020, so I’m really excited to get my teeth into some more projects. Previously, I was Senior Data Journalist at The Telegraph, where I was doing similar work digging into data to find stories and then communicating them through text and visualisation.
While there is some crossover between the two jobs, the new focus on visualisation is an exciting new step in my career. In this new role, I think I’ll be able to further push the boundaries of how I can visualise stories.
What is the most unexpected thing about the role?
That I’m still working from home! I started my job in lockdown and that has rightly continued to be the case as the coronavirus pandemic rumbles on. The team has been great, welcoming me with open arms and sharing their knowledge and experience generously.
I love the flexibility of remote working but it does present challenges, especially for the new starter - whether that’s slowly learning the newsroom platforms through sharing screens, being unable to simply lean over to your colleague to ask that ‘silly question’, or getting to know team members and the wider newsroom structure in a natural way.
I feel like these challenges are now mostly behind me, but it has been an unexpectedly tough challenge and has slowed down my assimilation into a new working environment.
What is the most challenging thing about the role?
I think one of the biggest challenges in my role can be the availability of data. While the open data movement has come on leaps and bounds over the last two decades, with many governments opening up their data, there are still limits to what is available.
A lot of my time is spent digging around and talking to people in order to find out if a particular dataset exists and if we can get access to it, even before I can actually get into the data and assess its reliability and newsworthiness.
What is the most useful thing you have learnt?
I’ve learned a lot in my professional life. When I started as a data journalist, my knowledge of the statistical programming language R was minimal. Now, it’s an essential part of my toolbox that I use on a daily basis. It’s incredibly useful.
But aside from the practical skills, the most useful thing I’ve learnt is that ideas are key.
You can be the best coder in the world, but unless you’ve got the ability to regularly come up with great ideas for stories, it doesn’t really matter in the newsroom.
What matters is that you have the capacity and the eagerness to regularly come up with groundbreaking ideas and then collaborate with others to see it through to publication. Such ideas creation and teamwork is key in not only in the newsroom, but I imagine most places of work.
What skills do you need for your job/do you find yourself using most often?
The tools that I use most regularly are R (for analysis and visualisation), Adobe Illustrator, QGIS and Excel. Through these, I can perform the majority of my work. My team and I use d3 for interactives and I’m currently learning how to better use this powerful visualisation tool.
But creating data visualisations requires more than technical skills, much of the job requires communication and collaboration, the ability to deliver a clear message, project management, strong attention to detail, problem-solving, proactivity and determination.
Where do you go to find inspiration, what from outside journalism do you take back and apply to your role?
I get most of my inspiration from the data and visual journalism community on Twitter - I have a list of people whose work I follow and read regularly. It helps to inspire new ideas and stay across industry trends and best practice. There are also plenty of great pieces of visual journalism from other newsrooms such as the Financial Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post.
This work has come into its own during the coronavirus pandemic, and it provides a lot of inspiration - whether that’s the New York Times' use of interactives to show how social distancing policies can effectively flatten epidemiological curves, the Financial Times’ analysis of UK excess deaths to deliver an important story, or the Guardian's own use of scrollytelling to visualise the first 100 days of coronavirus' global spread.
How do you make hard decisions?
It depends what the decision is. Sometimes you are informed by experience, having produced similar projects in the past and therefore developed an understanding of what works and what doesn’t. But really, the only way to truly overcome big challenges and make hard decisions is to talk to other team members, my manager and senior editorial staff to gather opinions and see things from all perspectives. Often then the right way forward presents itself.
What do you wish you knew when you took the job?
A positive element of the role which I didn’t fully anticipate is the high level of collaboration with subject experts who are fully on top of their game. Of course I expected some collaboration, and I was used to this in my old role, but essentially every project I now work on involves working with either someone on my own team or someone on another desk - say, news, environment or business, for example.
If I’d known this before I would’ve been even more excited by the role. As data- or visual-driven journalists, we are often generalists, covering many different topics and therefore not being an expert in a single one. To be able to draw on the expertise of the Guardian’s brilliant reporters and correspondents and learn from them has been such a privilege for me.
When you hire what are you looking for above all else?
Having strong ideas and the ability to see them through is what I look for. People can spend too long talking about their skills - the means to the end - rather than the end in itself, which is the story delivered to a reader.
Being able to perform basic Excel functions and use third-party chart builders is a prerequisite - both in visual and data journalism. Knowledge of coding languages such as R or D3 would be the skills to set you apart. But despite the required skills changing and the bar for these skills rising, having the ability to think of good ideas and see them through to publication is still the key.
What story or project are you most proud of so far? Tell us about how it came to be and why you are proud of it.
I think the stories I’ve been most proud of are the ones that have delivered exclusive news stories, while utilising the best visual journalism practices to communicate that story online.
Ones that come to mind are the freedom of information work I did in my previous role, such as when I revealed that crime victims had to wait over half an hour for police to respond to 999 calls as response times double, and how soaring numbers of elderly patients had been sent home from hospital at night. Such pieces regularly get the splash, but we can also communicate them effectively through data visualisation. I’d also be lying if I didn’t say that my previous general election coverage at the end of last year - whether that’s results, our prediction model or analysis - made me proud.
In my first few weeks at the Guardian, I worked on analysing coronavirus data to discover how ten countries were facing serious increases in coronavirus infections, while being among those nations with less stringent approaches to managing their outbreaks. This piece, covered in print and online, was able to bring data analysis and visual journalism to the forefront of the Guardian’s reporting on coronavirus.
More recently, we used the scrollytelling format to tell the story of how Joe Biden won the US presidential election. I really liked this piece because we used an innovative format to tell a complex and detailed breaking story online, helping to boost engagement with our online offering, while also bringing it to life on a print page as well by pulling out key news lines.
What’s one thing you thought would be would happen in the news industry when you started but hasn’t? Why?
I thought there’d be a lot more competition in the newsroom. The stereotype of the journalist getting scooped by others and jealously guarding their stories from colleagues just isn’t really the case. I was told or got the impression journalism would be a lot more competitive, battling colleagues on a daily basis for space on the homepage or the splash.
But, in reality, you’re all on the same side, working for the same goal - good stories for your publication - and so the focus is on collaboration and not competition. The same goes for the data and visual journalism community more widely, which I’ve turned to for help on many occasions when I’ve hit stumbling blocks.
What is one book/blogpost/podcast/link you’d like to share?
There are so many great resources for visual and data journalism, but I think the one I find myself recommending the most - especially to beginners of data visualisation - would be the FT's Visual Vocabulary. It allows you to analyse what kind of data is most important to your story and then look at which chart types within that category would work best in helping you communicate it. It will help avoid lots of misleading or inappropriate visualisations.
What or who do you like to read/listen to/watch/subscribe to/follow to keep up with how the industry is changing?
Twitter; Guardian’s Media team
What is your Favourite film/TV series about the news?