Matthew Ericson manages visual storytelling across the newsroom, got his start at ‘The Daily Iowan’

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Thursday, February 16, 2017

The shape and yield curve of federal borrowing. The murderous journey of a terrorist along an oceanfront promenade in France. The hunt for suspects following the Boston Marathon bombing. These are some examples of how The New York Times is using big data to tell big stories.

Leading the visual storytelling effort at the Times is Matthew Ericson, an early advocate of visual journalism and a former staff member of the University of Iowa’s Daily Iowan.

Ericson joined the Times in 2003 and spent more than a decade working with a team of journalists, web designers, and graphic artists to tell some of the biggest stories in modern history. In 2015, he was appointed associate editor, a job that put him in charge of storytelling across print, mobile, and web platforms—one that mashes deep-dive research and reporting with cutting-edge interactive technologies.

“I’m always looking to see if the form we use to tell a story lines up with the best way to tell the story,” says Ericson, a former Cedar Falls resident who attended the UI from 1993 to 1996. “I want the reader to experience the story as if they were there.”

Ericson talked about his experience with visual storytelling  on Feb. 17 at the Iowa Memorial Union as part of the 2017 Informatics Showcase, an annual event organized by the University of Iowa Informatics Initiative, a network of more than 180 faculty and staff members working on big data projects and collaborations.

“That was the turning point,” says Ericson. “From then on we decided to think about how to best tell a story from the outset. Do we want to tell it in print, or do we want to take advantage of the web and mobile technology?”

Gregory Carmichael, director of the Informatics Initiative, hopes Ericson’s visit will spotlight big data efforts on campus, as well as the initiative’s new headquarters on the top floor of the College of Public Health.

“The Informatics Initiative has only been around for about two years, so we are still getting the word out that we exist,” says Carmichael. “We want people to see us as a resource and to participate in big data projects.”

The UI campus played a significant role in Ericson’s career path. He says he got hooked on visual storytelling in the early 1990s while a student at Iowa. Although he started out majoring in computer engineering, Ericson quickly switched to journalism when he realized he was having more fun working at The Daily Iowan.

“I had always had an interest in art and data visualization,” recalls Ericson, “and at the time, graphics were the hot new thing in journalism. USA Today, which sort of pioneered newspaper graphics, still wasn’t that old. Creating information graphics combined everything I liked to do.”

Ericson’s first job out of college was as a graphics artist at The Philadelphia Inquirer, one of the nation’s oldest and most respected investigative newspapers. He spent six years at the Inquirer, and, in 2003, moved on to the Times.

It wasn’t long after his arrival that Ericson and a colleague convinced top editors that it was time to change the way they were thinking about graphics—not as afterthoughts to front page articles but as visual storytelling features capable of presenting information in bold new forms. It was about this same time that the Times moved into a new building and online and off-line staff offices merged, physically, onto the same floor. For the first time, reporters and editors were working shoulder to shoulder with colleagues from the virtual side of the news business.

“That was the turning point,” says Ericson. “From then on we decided to think about how to best tell a story from the outset. Do we want to tell it in print, or do we want to take advantage of the web and mobile technology?”

The use of big data to tell visual stories has helped to snag new audience members and breathe life into the newspaper industry, which hit hard times in the 2000s when subscriptions slumped, advertising revenue dipped, and newsrooms shrank. Although newspapers still face significant challenges, the use of big data to identify trends and talk about abstract ideas has helped to keep them relevant, says Daniel Lathrop, assistant professor of journalism and mass communication.

“Big data can be a great tool for finding important stories,” says Lathrop. “The most basic example being creating visualizations of activity on social media by monitoring and analyzing the behavior of millions of people. Another is the use of Google Trends as a way to capture the public zeitgeist by tracking Google searches in real time.”

The existence of better tools for managing and analyzing data is also helping journalists to cover the “big picture” better, according to Lathrop.

“There is a joke in journalism that one (example) is an anecdote, two is a coincidence, and three is a trend,” Lathrop says. “Having access to analyze and visualize data means that we can find real trends and avoid bogus ones.”

Lathrop hopes that his journalism students will see Ericson as an example of someone who never stops embracing change and challenge.

“Matt came here as an engineer and left a journalist,” Lathrop says. “He was able to synthesize different streams of interest into one amazing career, and now he’s helping to reinvent the way we get and produce the news.”