How the Sagebrush graphic of the ASUN budget ended up more confusing than the actual budget

Although I’ve never claimed to be a graphic design expert, I do believe that I have the ability to tell a good infographic from a bad one. And man, last week’s Nevada Sagebrush graphic on the proposed ASUN budget was not good at all. Here’s what it looked like (page link is here).

Image courtesy of The Nevada Sagebrush

Where to begin?

  • What am I looking at?: This graphic looks like it’s been pulled out of a high school chemistry book. In addition to no visual elements beyond basic geometric shapes, the graph just looks boring. Same-ish text types, no eye-catching colors or images and way too much white space. This is not visually appealing at all.
  • What does it mean?: It took me a few minutes to figure out what exactly was going on. Apparently, the vertical axis represents the change in dollar amount from the last year, while the horizontal axis shows the percent change from the past year. The bubbles are the largest changes in the budget (but the Budget and Finance and Student Activities Center don’t have one??) with the size of the bubble representing the portion of the total budget. So that’s three different pieces of information all crammed into one smallish space. It’s confusing as hell, and isn’t very self-explanatory; hallmarks of any good infographic. (Also, bubble charts suck. Read this)
  • Explanation: Ok, so after studying this graphic for about 10 minutes, I think I understand the information conveyed within. But what the hell does it mean? Why was more money given to Campus Escort? Why did the Budget and Finance section lose so much money? What is the ASUN Student Activities Center? What’s the actual dollar amount in the budget for 2013? What does all of the other money go towards? Graphics such as these can work as long as they’re accompanied by an explanatory text element, but what you see is all you get. I could easily get more information faster and easier from the actual pdf submission of the budget than from this graph.

This isn’t the first time the Sagebrush has goofed on a graphic, and while this graph doesn’t appear to misinform, its structure and layout is confusing as hell. Graphic design is an incredibly important part of newspaper production, as interesting and informative infographics and design can help a story come alive and look better than just words on a paper. But it needs to be done well for that to happen, and unfortunately the Sagebrush missed an opportunity to tell a pretty decent ASUN budget story here. Instead, we get this graphic, and are forced to either look through the official documents themselves or just ignore the issue entirely. It’s a failure to report and a failure to tell a story that needs to be told accurately and clearly.

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Is this RGJ headline misleading?

While prowling through today’s front pages (through the wonderful Newseum, of course,) from Nevada, I became interested in how the RGJ decided to play the story about the University of Nevada’s presidential search committee recommending Dr. Marc Johnson for the position of president. Johnson has served as interim president since the death of his predecessor, Milton Glick, and it came as a surprise to no one that he was selected by the committee. I’ve liked Johnson since I found out that he helped found a chapter of my fraternity as Emporia State University in Kansas.) The RGJ, as you can see below, decided to play the story up big.

As you can probably tell by the title of this post, I think the Johnson headline could be easily misconstrued by someone not overtly familiar with the entire story. The headline, “Hometown candidate gets nod,” is misleading because Reno isn’t really the hometown of Johnson. If you look up his bio, Johnson was actually born and educated in Kansas, and only came to Nevada in 2008 to become provost. Merriam-Webster defines hometown as, “The city or town where one was born or grew up; also : the place of one’s principal residence.” 

Technically, the Reno is the hometown of Johnson, as he has lived here for four years. But using the word hometown could lead to someone assuming that Johnson is a Nevada native or UNR graduate, which is not true. I know how difficult it is to write decent headlines when constrained by columns and font size, but it’s critical to make sure that headlines are as accurate as possible. Especially when it’s on the front page.

How the Collegiate Times covered the 5th year anniversary of the VT shootings

Five years ago today, one of the deadliest school shootings of all time happened at Virginia Tech University, where deeply troubled student Seung-Hui Cho massacred 32 classmates and professors before killing himself. The shootings stunned the nation, and prompted debates over collegiate safety and firearm laws. Five years later, a few newspapers in Virginia published stories related to the anniversary, but none of them compare to the scope of the university’s own paper.

The Collegiate Times (the university’s student-run newspaper) published this stark, eye-grabbing covertoday. I love it. For an issue like this, going out to a community that needs no reminder of what happened that April 16, this simple Roman numeral is more effective of a reminder than any picture of students mourning or Cho posing. That is a cover that demands to be read and to be picked up. The beginning text adds to the effect, saying,

“Time stood still each time Kristina Anderson heard about another traumatizing school shooting.

Anderson, who was injured in her French class in Norris Hall on the morning of April 16, 2007, feels a little bit of that pain return each time another shooting terrorizes another school.

“You were immediately taken back to your own experience even though they might be in Illinois or Finland or Ohio,” Anderson said. “Still, you can immediately relate to what happened, and you’re kind of in disbelief. At first, I started to feel a little bit of fear again. I felt, again, unsafe and scared and sadness and grief. It’s almost like you relive the Virginia Tech tragedy every time it happens.”

Beautiful. I have nothing else to add, really. Just a great front page tackling a heavy subject, and succeeding. You can check out other pages in the issue here, here and here, or check out all of the pages on Charles Apple’s blog. Here’s what Editor-in-Chief Zach Crizer had to say about the edition:

1. We used the Roman numeral for a couple reasons. It was originally considered because this is something we have done in the past. For our second anniversary, the Roman numeral II went the length of the page and a story ran between it. Now, that obviously still doesn’t explain why we use Roman numerals. The main reason is we feel there is no artistic element that fully captures the emotions or events of the day. No photo of one person or one thing can encapsulate what everyone feels, so we “mark” the passage of time with a literal mark. We feel these bold designs give people the opportunity to reflect on the time that has passed and still serve as a clear reminder that the greatest tragedy to strike our university is at another anniversary. The V was particularly appealing because we are “VT” and we used the extended lede of my story as a subtle reflection of the V to symbolize the reflecting being done on campus today.

2. Three people wrote stories for the edition (myself, news editor Nick Cafferky and features editor Chelsea Gunter). Design editor Victoria Zigadlo designed most of the issue, with some very significant contributions from design editor Danielle Buynak. The photos were mostly file art from previous events and anniversaries, but the most significant photos were from Mark Umansky and Paul Kurlak (who are both still current employees) and former photo editor Daniel Lin.

Why accuracy in graphs is paramount

Last night, the Associated Students of the University of Nevada, Reno student senate passed a bill that would about double their yearly pay, much to the chagrin of commenters on the Nevada Sagebrush website and Facebook page. ASUN officials have defended the bill as a necessary way to decrease senate inactivity and apathy, with students countering with failures to stop tuition hikes and other senate failures isn’t a reason to give themselves a raise.

I’ll leave my personal opinion out of this for the time being, because there’s another issue that I want to address with the Sagebrush’s coverage of the event. In last Tuesday’s issue, a graph appeared along with a story on the proposed hike, which I’ve posted below:

There’s one rather large issue with this graph: it doesn’t equally increment the scale on the left, which leads the proposed increase to look smaller than it actually is. After a comment deriding the poor judgment was made by cartoonist and illustrator Paul Horn, the Sagebrush changed the graph to be more accurate, which was put together by Horn:

It’s immediately obvious how much of a change that this pay increase makes when presented this way. Professional designer Charles Apple goes over this problem of misrepresenting information in graphs within his own blog on a seemingly weekly basis, and it is definitely a problem. Journalists have a responsibility to accurately present information not only in stories, but also in a visual manner. There was no reason for the other graph’s y-axis to be structured in the way that is was, as it cuts out about a $1000 worth of graph points; nearly the exact change proposed by the Senate. In the future, I’d like to see the Sagebrush put more of an emphasis on making sure that their graphs and information are accurate, rather than stories about erectile dysfunction or a Humans vs. Zombies game.

The right (and wrong) way to present Raggio’s funeral

Last month, the highly influential and well known former state senator Bill Raggio passed away. University of Nevada, Reno students know Raggio through the building named after him, and a memorial inside the Reno-Tahoe International Airport. Raggio’s funeral was held yesterday, and attendees included Governor Brian Sandoval, a U.S. Senator, members of the state’s Supreme Court and dozens of important legislative leaders.

Both the Reno Gazette-Journal and Daily Sparks Tribune decided to play the funeral coverage huge on their respective front pages, to varying degrees of success. Both pages are below:

Although both papers used similar shots of the Honor Guard carrying Raggio’s casket, it’s immediately apparent that the layout of RGJ is more eye-catching simply because it gives the art and stories attached more room to breath. The RGJ’s cover is very centered, and the banner below the nameplate is a nice, subtle touch.

The DST cover, however, is a bit more muddled. There’s two small photos of Raggio and Sandoval which add nearly nothing, and the huge cutout of a softball player along with the cartoon of Rush Limbaugh distract from the main package. Even though there’s only 2 stories on the DST cover, compared to the three on the RGJ, the later’s cover seems to present the funeral in a more serious manner.

A quick and dirty timeline

I put this timeline together in about 2 hours for Donica Mensing’s Journalism 101 class assignment on different age groups and their responses to media. The font used is Big Noodle Titling, which is both a hilarious name and makes pretty good numbers. If I had more time, I would of organized it a little differently and used cutouts of things like Elvis or old radios, but I couldn’t figure out the new version of Photoshop.

Designing without photos in the RGJ

The lead story for the RGJ this Sunday is the lawsuit between Harvey Whittemore and the Seeno family, which really isn’t a friendly story for designers because the only art to work with is mugshots and other, more boring elements. So I like the approach the paper took using text as art, and applying it to it’s readership.

I like the idea but I don’t like the execution. The bookend columns on Whittermore and Seeno are distracting from the main element, and it’s confusing to not have a main story to attract attention–just an extended teaser for inside content. Be bold! Blow that text image up to the full width of the paper, and drop everything below it. That kind of eye-grabbing changes are necessary if you want to attract extra attention to this story. It also balances out the large amounts of white space by the huge boxing skybox.

I’m glad to see that the RGJ is trying to diversify their content and draw extra eyes to an issue, while important, isn’t that appealing visually. But I want to see them do it in the best way possible.

Interesting design choice in the RGJ

Those of you who know me know that I love newspaper design, and that I check Newseum just about everyday for newspaper front pages across the state of Nevada. Usually, I love the design of the Las Vegas Sun, dislike what the LVRJ does, and go back and forth on the Reno Gazette-Journal. While the RGJ’s regular coverage can be slightly lacking in the polish afforded to more major markets, they are extremely good at covering and presenting big events, such as the Caughlin Ranch Fire last year.

But on a slower news day, it can be hard to create an attention grabbing front page just because the designer doesn’t have the amazing visual image like a giant, 1000-acre fire. That brings me to today’s front page of the RGJ:

Not a bad A1. There’s pretty diverse news content, which for the most part is unique and more interesting than shit ripped from AP the day before, which the LVRJ always does. But I’m curious as to the massive headline block for Brian Duggan’s main story on a plan to revise an old RTC center downtown. I like the initiative of playing up a story which could of easily been buried in a rail or inside, because it can have a bigger impact. But the art along with the story is extremely boring- it’s just a building. This is an occasion where an illustration may have served them better, or just some alternative way of telling the story. People aren’t going to be attracted to a boring looking building- they’re attracted to uniqueness, to visually attractive elements.

Hopefully as the RGJ continues to grow in it’s news coverage, it will be able to take on these challenges and make all of the paper’s elements excellent, rather than just writing or photography.