Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Rubina a Graphics Editor - What's That?

For the couple of years after graduating from the Columbia School of Journalism our daughter Rubina has worked as a graphics editor, the last 18 months with the Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

What does she do as a graphics editor? She obtains the data and material and then uses it to create charts, tables, inset summaries and other visuals (except pure photographs) that accompany news stories. For her and her colleagues it can be a charged - some will say stressful - environment with tight deadlines. But she has a passion for it.

For the most part she and her colleagues walk into work in the morning, learn about developing stories and then conceive of the graphics in consultation with reporters, columnists and editors. Then it's data and materials search, verification, creation, iterations and all to be completed before "press time" by late evening.

They each do anything from two to five graphics on a typical day, depending on the complexity and the workload. To maintain an efficient and collaborative environment without worries about who gets credit the graphics folks generally do not put their names on their creations. We don't know about her precise handiwork till she tells us, though we can make some guesses.

Want to see a sample of Rubina's work? Unfortunately, most of the online versions are not the same as the ones in print, and need a subscription to view. If you have one, here's one from May 12 that she did on the US federal highest bracket tax rates going back all the way to 1913. The print version was better. It is overlaid with the terms and pictures of US Presidents. Rubina had to work with some IRS folks to get a major part of the information. When the story came out the IRS called to compliment the WSJ on the graphic.

Addendum on July 22: Today, Rubina had a graphic on childhood obesity so I thought I'll add it. Here's what she had to say:
I have a U.S. map on today's Currents page on child obesity rates by state. Rather than color-coding the states like we usually do, we decided to make the heights of the states correspond to their obesity rates. This was done using a program called Cinema 3-D, which I used for the first time on Monday. You can see the print version on page A11 or online here by clicking on the small map: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124821547930269995.html

Friday, July 10, 2009

Much Ado About Trivial Congress Expenses

There should be a journalistic equivalent of the Razzies, a kind of an anti-Pullitzer Prize, awarded for the worst of the prominent media stories. For this I'd like to nominate a series of front page Wall Street Journal (WSJ) articles on Congressional travel and other expenses that have been appearing since mid-May. These have obviously been inspired by the British MP expense controversy that should have been a non-event if only the public were more astute. But it isn't, and the resultant scandal ended the political careers of many MPs and Ministers.

Of all papers, business-oriented ones like the WSJ should make the case as I did about compensation for US lawmakers being substantially boosted in line with their responsibilities. They should also have a public funding option for their election campaigns if they agree to forego private fundraising through campaign contributions. Even at salaries of $1 - $2 million annually and an equivalent amount for election expenses the annual taxpayer tab will be $3 billion. That's money well spent to reduce lawmaker vulnerability to petty Abramoff style inducements and lobbyist influence. It's a natural extension of campaign finance reform efforts, for which McCain and Feingold deserve a lot of credit even if they've had very limited success.

As I've said before, the WSJ has instead tried to whip up a UK style news storm about lawmaker "splurges" in the US. To some extent it has succeeded. Starting with its May 16 article, Expensing It, the US Way" the WSJ has played up travel and office expenses of at most a few thousand dollars per individual Congressmen that also happen to conform to all the rules and are available for public scrutiny in hard copy. But the WSJ wants to go further and sought full online disclosure of every expense detail. After its strident articles and reporting of May 20, May 30, June 1, June 3, Nancy Pelosi decided on June 4 to require all expense details to be posted online, with the Senate promising to follow suit.

All this detracts from the lawmakers focusing on infinitely more serious matters facing the country. Such journalism reflects poorly on a prestigious publication like the WSJ, and yet it hasn't stopped there. It has continued with these front page expose's including on July 2 highlighting the foreign travel tab of lawmakers of a whopping $13 million in 2008 (costing the average American 4 cents) and a July 3 article about such official records understating these expenses. Even so, the listed expenses are so trivial as to be laughable, but politicians know too well that they shouldn't over-estimate the wisdom of (at least a significant proportion of) the readers.

Ridicule by another part of the media may be the best way to stop such cheap and irrelevant reporting. Any takers, Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert?