Visual storytelling inside The Pudding

Conversations with Data: #74

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Welcome to our latest Conversations with Data newsletter.

In this week's Conversations with Data episode, we spoke with Jan Diehm, a senior journalist engineer at The Pudding. She talks to us about her creative process for designing visual stories, what coding languages she can't live without and how to pitch The Pudding.

You can listen to the entire podcast on Spotify, SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts. Alternatively, read the edited Q&A with Jan Diehm below.

What we asked

Tell us about your career. How did you develop an interest in visual journalism?

I always knew I wanted to do journalism. I was in a high school journalism class where I did the design for the newspaper. I was also a photographer. That was my first step into the visual side of journalism. I went to college to study photojournalism, but then the design side had a stronger pull. So I ended up doing a lot of newspaper page design at college, and my first job out of school was at the Hartford Courant doing the sports pages. I really just enjoyed the puzzles of fitting visuals together. After a few layoff situations -- because that's what happens in the industry -- I had to reinvent my brand and vision of visual journalism. That eventually led me to data journalism and developing and designing stuff for the web.

Who founded The Pudding and how did it come about?

The name comes from the old adage, "the proof is in the pudding". In 2017, Matt Daniels, Ilia Blinderman and Russell Goldenberg wanted it to be called "The Proof". But the name was already taken. They were joking around and said, "what if we just called ourselves The Pudding?" It was just a joke, but then it stuck. That name reflects the playfulness of the publication. It's inviting and unintimidating, but then it's attached to the rigour and investigative intentions.

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What advice do you have for journalists pitching The Pudding?

My first piece of advice is don't be intimidated. The second thing I would say is to make sure your idea is looking for a deeper truth. For those new to data journalism, you want to explore the data and every single asset of it. You want to know what the shape of it is and how it looks like. Those raw data explorations don't work well for our platform because we want to find the deeper truth or the kernel that really connects it to how people live their day to day life.

The first questions you ask are the whats and the wheres. At The Pudding, we're trying to answer the how and why questions with the data. So I think we're trying to add that qualitative piece in a lot of our reporting in the projects that we do. Taking that next step and asking yourself, "Why is this important? Why am I intrigued by this idea?" If you're really passionate about it and it excites you, that comes through in your pitch as well. At The Pudding, you'll see a lot of personal stories that draw on our own lived experiences that lead us down a path.

What story are you most proud of?

I think the piece examining the size of women's jean pockets is definitely what I refer to it as my magnum opus. It is what I have become most known for on the Internet and what people ask me about the most. There wasn't a data set there. That meant me and Amber Thomas had to go make it. We couldn't go online and just look at the product descriptions of all these jeans and get pocket measurements because they weren't there. We both physically went to stores and measured these pockets. We developed a system for measuring before we went out. As we were two white ladies, how we looked afforded us the ability to go collect that data safely. After we got the data, we were able to put it online in a piece that really resonated.

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What is your creative process for coming up with story ideas at The Pudding?

We all keep a document that we call our personal backlogs -- it's just the most random of ideas that we have come into our head at any point in time. I'm a millennial, a child of the Internet. That means a lot of my ideas come straight from there. We all consume a lot of different media and different things. The more that we consume, the better our output.

As a team, we do a process that we call "storytime". It involves bringing those little snippets of ideas and saying, "Hey, this is an idea. What do you guys think of it? How can we make it better? What's the next approach to it?" It's about seeing if this idea excites the team. You can see it in people's body language or how quick they are to respond to an idea. That's the best gauge.

What programming languages do you know? How did you learn them?

I know HTML and CSS, which I taught myself. But then I came into the data visualisation side of it through D3. I learned D3 before I learnt JavaScript by taking some classes at General Assembly when I was living in New York City. I also took a D3 data visualisation night class. This involved applying what I learned from classes to on the job. I also learned from other people that I worked alongside. I now know JavaScript well. Recently at The Pudding, we've started using Svelte, which is a new framework library developed by Rich Harris at The New York Times. It's an awesome framework for beginners because the syntax just makes more sense. For instance, it is like you're writing closer to plain English than you would in other languages.

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Finally, what is next for The Pudding?

We're currently hiring for a managing director role for our editorial operation. Right now we're juggling different projects at the same time and we have no centralised system for how we ensure our pieces have an editorial standard and somebody to look over them. This role would also involve managing our freelance pool. This will allow us to grow as a platform beyond our core team and be a voice and a source for other storytellers as well. We are trying to keep the momentum going and continually innovate. That involves trying to figure out what's next. What's the next big tool or medium for telling visual data stories. I don't know if we have it yet, but we're always looking for it.

Latest from

How can data journalism be used to ensure the accuracy and impact of war reporting? Sherry Ricchiardi provides a journalist's guide for using data to report on conflict-affected regions. Read the full long read article here.

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Our next conversation

Our next Conversations with Data podcast will feature Maarten Lambrechts, a freelance data visualisation consultant based in Belgium. He will speak to us about his work as a consultant and how he helps organisations communicate their numbers by evaluating, designing and developing static and interactive visualisations. Most recently, he has worked with Eurostat, Thomson Reuters, Google News Initiative and The World Bank. Before he turned freelance, he worked as a data journalist at Flemish newspaper De Tijd. Check out his portfolio here.

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As always, don’t forget to let us know what you’d like us to feature in our future editions. You can also read all of our past editions here. You can also subscribe to this newsletter here.


Tara from the EJC Data team,

bringing you, supported by Google News Initiative.

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