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Interview: USA Today

News January 8, 2020

We are fortunate at Mapcreator to work with some of the most well-respected and trusted news brands from around the world, and USA Today is no exception. With the recent changes at Mapcreator, we wanted to get the views of one of our long-standing customers about how Mapcreator fits into their workflows, what it is like to work with us and some thoughts on the future of maps and visualizations in journalism. Who better to ask than Karl Gelles, information graphic specialist at USA Today?

The news industry has experienced significant disruption since Karl started working (part-time, to begin with) on the print edition of USA Today in 2001, while completing his studies in illustration and computer art at Savannah College of Art and Design. “As an artist, USA Today had immediate appeal for me,” says Karl, “it was highly visual, combining a unique design with colour graphics and photographs to capture the reader’s attention.”

Digital first

With the advent of digital, has the requirement for visual elements diminished? Not according to Karl: “There is a huge demand for graphics.” Describing his role as more proactive than ever, Karl and his colleagues are almost a ‘newsroom within a newsroom’, creating maps and graphics in real-time alongside stories as they break, often starting with a simple locator map and subsequently enhancing with satellite imagery/additional information as the stories build.

“Mapcreator is often the first place we look to with breaking news,” says Karl, “we have to ensure that we produce high-quality maps that have impact. People want their news fast and to be able to understand it quickly; graphics are a key part of how we achieve this at USA Today.”

Interactivity also plays an important part in storytelling and reader engagement at USA Today. During their coverage of the Kmart and Sears store closures, Karl and his colleagues were able to create an interactive map using Mapcreator which showed store closures at a national and local level by enabling readers to zoom in on their location.

Click here to see the interactive map

This style of interactive experience was also used by USA Today in a series of maps showing the location of electric vehicle charging stations along the routes of popular road trips across America.

“Mapcreator is often the first place we look to with breaking news.”

Map to the future

Fans of sci-fi will likely recall that a futuristic edition of USA Today (Hill Valley edition) made an appearance in the 1989 film Back to the Future Part II. We thought it would be apt to ask for Karl’s views on the future of visualizations in news.

“I predict a more visual future,” says Karl, “data visualization is growing and there is a greater thirst for new features, such as 3D. Graphics deliver information instantly, and our readers appreciate this. We chose Mapcreator because it’s easy to use, quick to create maps, always accurate and your team are eager to use our feedback to improve things. The inclusion of 3D buildings in the new tool is really positive step forward.”

“Data visualization is growing and there is a greater thirst for new features, such as 3D.”

Top tips

Karl and his colleagues use Mapcreator every day, so we asked him for his 3 top tips for creating maps:

1. Remember your audience: “Some of your readers will be looking for general information, others for a more in-depth/deep dive understanding – make sure that you cater for both audiences when planning your maps. From a design perspective, I would recommend keeping your maps clean and simple.”

2. Have good data sources: “Always bookmark reliable, trustworthy sources of data as you will need to go back to them again and again. At USA Today we frequently use resources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.”

3. Invite feedback: “Having conducted all of the data research etcetera that goes into creating your map, it can be easy to develop tunnel vision around the end product. Take the necessary time to get feedback from your colleagues and superiors as this will only serve to enhance the finalised map.”

“Always bookmark reliable, trustworthy sources of data as you will need to go back to them again and again.”

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