Interactivity Advances Environmental Storytelling, Part II — Hannah Fairfield Q&A

September 15, 2021

EJ InSight: Interactivity Advances Environmental Storytelling, Part II — Hannah Fairfield Q&A

You will find some of the best interactive journalism in places like The New York Times climate section. The paper hardly invented interactive journalism — many others are doing it well (see examples in Part III here). But The New York Times is almost unique in having a large, talented and publicly visible interactives team that is explicitly recognized as such and supported, it seems. Add experience to the other things that help achieve interactive excellence; you can find articles about The Times’ interactive team (may require subscription) going back as far as 2009.

Hannah Fairfield. Photo: The New York Times. Click to enlarge.

The Times is also pretty unique in its commitment to climate change as a topic. Yes, there is lots of climate-centered journalism and a plethora of climate journalism outlets (despite what #endclimatesilence and similar advocates say). But The Times is still one of the few major daily print outlets with so strong a focus on climate. It has an Olympic-level climate desk and climate team.

It also has Hannah Fairfield, the editor who leads The Times’ climate team. How many “climate editors” do you find at major papers, really? She is a journalist by training, but Fairfield’s professional experience, at The Times and elsewhere, was especially strong in news design (an underappreciated subfield of journalism). And how many editors of subject areas come from design backgrounds, really? It was a bold stroke for The Times to appoint her. And look at the interactives. And the depth and breadth of coverage.

SEJournal’s Joe Davis interviewed Fairfield for this package on interactivity in environmental coverage. Here are her emailed responses.

SEJournal: What got you started on interactives? Can you tell briefly the story of your journey?

Hannah Fairfield: I've always been interested in finding new ways to tell stories visually. I started my career on the graphics desk at The New York Times, visualizing data through charts and maps. I love the way that a story snaps into focus when data reveals a trend. Over the past two decades, the tools and technology have changed so much, and harnessing those tools means that journalism can be much more immersive than in the past. Interactivity can even allow readers to be part of the story, like in “How Much Hotter Is Your Hometown Than When You Were Born?” (may require subscription).

SEJournal: How does an interactive project typically begin? The story? The data? A picture? A spark? A hunch?

Fairfield: Good stories always start with an idea, often a question. And then the reporting process starts to reveal how interesting the answer is and how complex. Sometimes interactive projects can be a really good way to communicate complex ideas. For instance, one project started with the question: How can we show untraced and invisible methane leaking from oil and gas sites in the U.S.? The answer led us to infrared video, and this fascinating project.

SEJournal: Can interactives work on small screens?

Fairfield: Interactives have to be able to work on small screens, because that’s where readers are. For many projects, we start designing with the mobile version first, so that we know that the final version will be elegant on a small screen.

SEJournal: What subject matter or kind of story is well-suited to interactives? What subjects are ill-suited? And how might interactives evolve further? Smell-o-vision? 3-D? Holograms? Virtual reality?


‘The field of interactive journalism is

growing and changing so much and

the opportunities are basically endless.’


Fairfield: Visual stories make incredible interactives. And this project (may require subscription) was the NYT Climate Desk’s first venture into AR [augmented reality]; we wanted the AR to be part of the actual storytelling, rather than just an add-on. The field of interactive journalism is growing and changing so much and the opportunities are basically endless. Everyone is experimenting so much and learning from those experiments. The best experiments become part of the toolset widely used in newsrooms.

SEJournal: What skills and training should a journalist acquire if they want to work in interactive journalism?

Fairfield: Being comfortable with code and development is valuable. Joining that with skills like reporting, data analysis and visualization can create a powerful combination.

[Editor’s Note: In Part I of this package, read how interactivity transforms environmental storytelling. Plus, in Part III, our list of model projects that set the standard for interactivity in environmental journalism.]

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 32. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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