Squirrel talk: "I prefer one good project over ten bad ones."

As director of digital design at the South China Morning Post, Marco Hernandez is specialized in the interactive development of storytelling with infographics and data visualization. Here, he gives insight into the inner workings of the SCMP data team, and shares tips on how he approaches a data-driven story.

What tools do you use to manipulate, edit and handle data?

I guess it depends on the project. We are not stuck to an abstract data visualisation style or illustrated classic graphics. Instad, we do a little bit of everything. Just to mention some: I use RAW, Tableau, Excel, Google docs, D3, CD4, QGIS, GeoJSON, Adobe CC pack …

Should journalists learn how to code?

Let's say it this way: A lot of the time, designers, coders and journalists are all the same person, especially in small companies. But even if you work for a big media outlet, you need to understand the different languages to know the possibilities, contribute and develop better final products.

Learning the basics will make you understand the work of the others. Journalist don't need to become developers, but they do need to understand them. So knowing a little bit of code doesn't hurt.

Do you work with Excel? Or do you avoid it?

Sometimes it is a quick option, sometimes you don't need it at all. I believe the tool doesn't make any difference. If you have a clear idea of what you need to tell the story behind the data, you can even do it with just paper and pencil. My advice is: Spend 90% of your time thinking about the solution and leave the rest to the tool, whatever it is.

Working with data can be time consuming. How do you judge if it is worthwhile to do a data project?

In the early stages of your project, conduct an interview with your data.

  • Filter it:

    Ask: what is the most interesting part there. Don't be afraid to edit yourself.

  • Find the little stuff

    The curiosities or anomalies, with some context, can become the main idea of your piece.

  • Give context

    Make comparisons and put them in simple charts: That makes the data easy to understand very quickly.

If you're satisfied with the result – not because of the amount of time you spent but because of the impact it will have – go ahead. Don't fall in love with your analisis, but be as cruel with yourself as the editors will be, it will save you a lot of time.

Suppose I'm the only person in my newsroom who knows about data or how to code. What can I do?

First: Don't go crazy.

Take the good data to work with Create one or two good projects and solve the rest with basic solutions. Maybe in future you can develop the topic in-depth. I prefer one good project over ten bad ones.

Second: Create your own toolkit.

A lot of stuff can be solved by recycling components. Take your time to create a nice tool kit and encourage the people around you to learn how to use it. Maybe this will leave you more time to do better stuff.

What does the daily work routine look like for you in the SCMP data team?

We are a bunch of nerds doing the stuff we love the most. So every day is like going to the playground, rather than another day in the office, and then you even know that someone will pay you for it.

Which of your data projects are you most proud of? What didn't work out so well? And which project was most well received by the readers?

Everytime we publish something, we take a look at what we can do better during the next project. So any day, I'd say I'll be proud of the one we will publish tomorrow.

We have a few stories the readers were crazy about: “A world of languages” is one of those, “City of anarchy” is another, and more recently the Forbidden City series. Those have reached millions of readers and have also had big impact on social media.

To what extent does your newsroom support you in the development of data journalistic formats?

We have good support from the rest of the newsroom: They trust us. But that's also tricky because they have high expectations for us – and no one likes to disappoint the newsroom, especially the heads of the newspaper.

In turn, we expect them to respect our choices, the focus we want for each story and the freedom to express ourselves. Luckily, we have that, and sometimes their suggestions make our product better – though sometimes they are just funny suggestions.

Does data journalism have a future in small local newsrooms?

Yes, the future of journalism made by humans is to go deeper, to tell and show stories with a new focus. Not just trendy, but useful or educational.

I guess it is like I said above: If you are the only one coding, choose your battles well, create a few good stories and solve the rest with your toolkit

The SCMP have a great history in print graphics. If you don't know their work yet, you should take a quick look into our arcade here.


Marco Hernandez Solano

"I'm a visual journalist, but my business card says I'm the Director of digital design …. I just know I'm happy doing graphics"

Marco is a former senior infographics designer at La Nación and a lecturer in information design at the Science and Arts University of Costa Rica. At South China Morning Post (SCMP), he develops online visual stories.

How many bottles of coke do you drink per day?
var coke = Math.floor((Math.random() * 3) + 1);

How many pie charts have you built?
More than I would like to admit

How many times per week do you have to explain what "data journalism" is?
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How many items are on your desktop?
Physical desktop, 3 screens, a wacom, a fan, a keyboard and a bottle, so: 7 Computer desktop: 0

Swear words per day?
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Your funniest file name?
is a Latin American word to refer to a thing when you can't remember their name. Then you can't remember what's inside the file

snow flake
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