In speaking to Gabriel Dance, the Interactive Editor at The Guardian US, you’ll hear the words “fun”, “interesting”, “creative”, “engaging”, and “different” repetitively. This is exactly the mindset newsrooms need to stand out from the crowd when covering elections, especially considering all news organizations are faced with the task of presenting the same data to their audience. Even though The Guardian US has only been in existence since September 2011, the team quickly gained momentum in dominating data and interactive journalism during the elections. In this week’s exclusive GEN interview, Gabriel Dance gives his experience on covering the 2012 presidential elections, and predicts how data will be gathered for future elections.
GEN: Can you describe your role as Interactive Editor of the Guardian US?
Gabriel Dance: I am responsible for coming up with creative, engaging, and innovative news ideas that are implemented as interactive content on the website. We are an interactive team, which is not to say we are a graphics only team as we don’t only do graphs, maps, charts, and news applications. We are focused on creating interactive news experiences, whether that is data visualizations, charts, maps, games, or different methods of engagement through voting and user generated content.
What was your experience in covering the elections during 2012?
Luckily I had people on the team that already had experience in covering elections. Feilding Cage, my interactive designer, worked at The Associated Press when he covered the elections in 2010, so his experience was invaluable to me. He was in charge of all of our election night graphics, and those charts and maps were very popular. It was a lot of responsibility to provide minute by minute live election night graphics for the entire elections, including the congressional elections and the governors' elections. I’m proud of our small team, because other places have at least three or four people working on these big projects.
The election coverage started during the primaries in early 2012, and we experimented during this time with isometric projections of our maps which were different than other people’s maps. For the most part there is a certain set of information everyone is expected to have, but I think at the same time we were able to get a little more creative on some of our projects.
What were some of the specific projects which were produced during the elections?
One project that Kennedy Eliot (interactive designer) and Julian Burgess (interactive developer) worked on was The Spin Generator, which was an interesting game. During the presidential debates, our team would insert actual quotes from the debates into the game, and let people remix those quotes refrigerator magnet style. Users would turn those quotes into other quotes, and we would encourage them to share and tweet their new phrases. Like I said, we wanted to create interactive news experiences, but these projects should still have a point and tell a story. We were asking people to not only think about what politicians say during the debates, but also what they are meaning to say a little bit more. I really didn’t see anything else like this project during the elections.
We also built a couple of offsite single-serve pages called ismittromneythepresident.com and isbarackobamathepresident.com, and these were fun illustrative data visualizations of where the Electoral College stood according to the polls. The red and blue balloons would change hands between candidates daily based on the latest polls. The day before the elections, we turned these pages into a game so users could build their own electoral scenario. Again, a large focus of my team is not trying to recreate what is already built on the Internet, or at least not verbatim. There were a lot of electoral college calculators out there, and it’s one of those tools you want to have on your site so people can visualize the different scenarios for the swing states. Yet I wanted to build something that was a little more whimsical and fun, so I think the balloons accomplished that task. Those sites turned out to be really successful on the social web.
Our most popular project that we did on election day was our graphic novel America: Elect! It was a scrolling comic book looking back at Mitt Romney’s run at the presidency, and this concept is something we have been wanting to try for a while. I have a talented illustrator and animator on our team named Greg Chen, and we had been kicking around the idea for how to do a comic book online, and so my editor Stuart Millar suggested we focus on the story of the election. That idea came together very quickly over the course of about two and a half weeks. We worked with our DC correspondent Richard Adams, and our interactive developer Julian Burgess started looking into scrolling libraries and how we were going to put it together. He is a computer wiz, so on a very tight deadline he was able to work with Greg and make the vision come together. Ultimately we were really excited about how that turned out because we weren’t working from any kind of model. I’m in no way claiming that this is totally original, as I am sure that someone else on the Internet has done something very similar to the graphic novel, but we were not working from anything besides the idea we had in our heads. I think people really responded to it, because on election day people are really overwhelmed with graphics and data, especially within the last two years. Those things are absolutely important and we did have maps and data, but there are people who still like a good old fashion story. America: Elect! was a story told in an innovative way that resonated with a different group – or at least an overlap – of the charts and maps group.
Out of all the apps, which were the most engaging for the users?
I wouldn’t call them apps necessarily, just projects, because there are people who will say they are not news apps. They are probably technically right according to whatever bizarre definition of news apps exists. I’m proud of all of them, because they all hit different niches. I’m really happy with the balanced approach we took.
How do you think data will be used in future elections?
Right now, basically every major newspaper in the United States gets the data for elections by paying The Associated Press for a feed of results. Everybody has the same results, and everybody has them at the same time. That is why so often these things look so similar, not because people have settled on a decent way to show elections graphics, but because everyone is working from the same data set.
What is interesting is Google and a few other players are trying to get into the election data game. During the Republican primaries, Google directly partnered with the Republican Party in a couple of states to create their own data results. To be honest, generally the same data is coming back no matter what, but it is interesting that there are going to be more players involved. Over the next four years, we are going to see an increase in the number of people delivering data results for elections, and hopefully more data and different types of data will be available. With any luck, that will make for richer and different data visualizations than we are currently seeing. The challenge is to make sure we are doing something different with our election results, and that is what The Guardian US team tried to do.
Given your experience, do you have any advice for GEN’s editorial community?
Always try to do something new, and push the boundaries of your journalism: whether that is your interactive journalism, writing, or reporting. There was a lull for a couple of years while everyone was trying to catch up to The New York Times, so you saw the same things being built over and over. But I think what is cool now is you see a bunch of small teams popping up all over the world, and because of the Internet these teams can compete at the same level in terms of accessibility. People check out The Guardian or Le Monde’s site just as easily as they can view The New York Times or any other news organization. Therefore, I think the main difference will be the creativity of your coverage. Of course that assumes your coverage is accurate and thorough, and that is a lot to assume admittedly. But all things being equal, it is going to be the people pushing the boundaries and publishing stories creatively that will engage the readers.
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