Professional Perspective: Joe Ward
After studying geography at the University of Buffalo, Joe joined The New York Times as a cartographer. After a short stint as a mapmaker, he spent several years there as a page designer before becoming the Times’s sports graphics editor. He has held that position since 1991 and his work focuses on data visualization and the process and mechanics of athletic performance. His recent work as part of the Times’s graphics team has included motion-capture analysis of Olympic athletes. The 2016 Rio Olympics was the seventh he has attended. His information graphics have won awards at the Society of News Design and at the Malofiej international information graphics competition.
Q: What’s your general graphics reporting philosophy when it comes to covering an event like the Olympic Games?
Our preview pieces have evolved over the years, from explaining how games are played in a very general sense, to being more focused on athletes themselves. We try to figure out early on (about a year ahead of time) who may be the stars or at least gold-medal favorites. Then we try to identify what about them separates them from nearly everyone else. Our graphics take aim at the those sometimes minor differences that separate the best from everyone else.
Q: Did you have any new strategies or ideas for covering the Rio Olympics?
Our competition-based graphics were similar in concept to previous years, but Rio also presented certain problems (and opportunities) to explore. We traveled to Rio in November explore some of those ideas, one of which was this exploration of the water problems surrounding Guanabara Bay.
Q:When did the NYT graphics team begin planning for this summer’s Olympic Games?
We usually try to identify the athletes we want to highlight more than a year ahead of time. (I am working on the 2018 Winter Games right now). To get good access to them, you have to approach them long before the Games because once it gets close, they shut it down to concentrate on their training. Usually it is about a year before the Games that we reach out to them (and then hope they don’t get hurt and don’t compete).
Q: The interactive piece, Olympic Races, in Your Neighborhood, is a fantastic way for a viewer to fully comprehend the super-human feats Olympic athletes achieve. How are ideas for interactive pieces like this generated?
This piece was actually conceived of by an intern. We are always looking for fresh ideas and very often it is people new to The Times who have a different approach on how to make the Olympics interesting. Everyone in the graphics dept. and beyond are welcome to offer ideas. The more the better, and then we sift through them to see what is most interesting and what ideas can actually get executed.
Q: How does the graphics team decide what stories require extra planning like Simone Biles feature The Fine Line, versus a graphic that is turned around quickly following an event?
As I mentioned earlier, we usually have a series of preview pieces that we can spend huge amounts of time on (months and months). We will get these ready to parse out throughout the Games as these athletes are about to compete. The live graphics are planned in advance too, like this one:
The concept and reporting were done ahead of time and then we shot the frames during the race and compiled it as soon as the race was over.
Q: The build up to this year’s olympics was marred by the Zika, doping, and the overall state of Rio, was there a discussion about how to cover these issues graphically?
Yes. I mentioned earlier about our Bay piece, but we also did a lot pf prep work surrounding the doping scandals.
That resulted in these two graphics:
Q: How does the team decide which events to cover and athletes to feature?
Mostly it revolves around how interesting the athletes or the competition will be. We knew Simone Biles would be a big story so we spent a lot of time on her piece. Michael Phelps was back for his 5th Games, so that offered us a lot of data to sift through and we decided to compare Michael to himself over the years. Regardless of how well he did in Rio, it would make for some interesting graphics.
Q: What was your favorite NYT graphic from the Rio Olympics?
My favorite piece was this one about guessing the sports based on an athletes body.
I thought that the premise and execution were fun and I was happy that we could include the Paralympians alongside the able-bodies athletes. Much to my disappointment, it didn’t get much traction and I am not sure why. If you have any thoughts about why it didn’t get more love, I would be happy to hear them.
Q: Did you see any graphics published by other outlets that made you think, “I wish we had come up with that idea?”
I am ashamed to say, that I have yet to look at other outlets. When I get back to the office, perhaps
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring graphics reporters today?
This is not new advice, but it still holds true: no matter how good the technology is or how many bells and whistles there are, it is still the story that counts. If people don’t find the story interesting, then they won’t stick with the piece. Find a story that is of interest to you and it will probably interest others too. Then find an interesting way to tell it. Lots of reporting and digging helps uncover those interesting details.