Data journalism at The Economist gets a home of its own in print

By Alex Selby-Boothroyd

When The Economist last underwent a redesign in May 2001, both the publisher and the editor wrote letters to our readers trumpeting its new features. At first glance, this week’s revamp  technically a refresh rather than a redesign — commands less fanfare. The contents pages still contain what you would expect (albeit more elegantly designed), the new typefaces feel familiar and page layouts have been subtly improved rather than radically revised. Even our distinctive blue charts remain.

But there is one major change: the addition of a new weekly print section, Graphic detail, which will showcase the best of our data journalism team’s visual storytelling. Although the team still feels pretty new (it was only formed in 2015), this section has been 175 years in the making. We looked back through the archive to see how data visualisation has evolved from our first issue to the present day.

A protectionist president slaps tariffs on trading partners, 1840s-style

There has always been a place for data on the pages of The Economist. In the inaugural issue on September 2nd 1843, the editor clearly judged the mood of a numbers-loving nation and placed a table squarely on the front page. And statistics featured heavily elsewhere in the paper. Seven of the first issue’s sixteen pages contained tables, and by the end of the first year, several pages were given over entirely to swathes of tabular data. Charts, though, didn’t arrive until later.

The first data visualisation we found was part of a reader’s letter in January 1847 (below left). Our excitement at what initially looked like a bubble chart (“It’d better be sized by area rather than radius”, said every single visualiser who saw it) turned to disappointment when we realised it just showed coin sizes:

Cumbrous copper coinage and the communication of cholera

The next chart we came across — the flow diagram above from September 1849 showing the spread of a cholera outbreak — also came from a letter which was notable for not being written by John Snow (although it does refer to an essay by this veritable pioneer of data journalism from his pre-pump-defacing days).

The first non-epistolary chart we found was published in November 1854. Although it was brazenly copied from a book, we felt it did indeed make the relative size of the coal fields of the world plain:

A tree map. Not all chart names are helpful

But it was clearly not enough to convince our Victorian editors of the benefits of regular data visualisation, and it would take another 70 years until charts, maps and infographics became a weekly occurrence on the pages of The Economist.

It was a simpler time, when apples and oranges could be compared with abandon

Over the next hundred years, the exuberance (and size) of these early visualisations gave way to the smaller, more sober square charts for which we are still best known. The ethos of these charts has always been to convey interesting and relevant information to the reader clearly and quickly (ideally in just a few seconds) and with no unnecessary detail.

The only change to this has been cosmetic. First they turned red in the early 1980s (very on-brand). Then, when our pages went full colour in 2001, we chose a blue background to complement the feature-box stories.

We have always been known for our original chart titles

Over the past decade or so, our journalists and editors (and the world at large) developed a taste for data-driven stories, and a new format was created: the chart-based article (inevitably dubbed a ‘charticle’ about three seconds after inception). This type of story, in which the chart or map is the ‘star’ and the accompanying text plays a supporting role, found a regular home in print.

Meanwhile, the visualisers and cartographers who would go on to form the backbone of the data team were refining their considerable design skills. Cow gum, scalpels and correcting fluid have given way to computer-aided chart-making, and new coding tools like R and Python have allowed visualisers, researchers and journalists to collaborate on a more expansive online version of the charticle, the ever-popular daily chart.

And it is this continued appetite for data-driven stories told in a visually striking way that led to the creation of a dedicated data journalism team, and now to our own section. Each week our data journalists and visualisers will work together to bring you a mind-stretching full-page data visualisation and article. Where possible, we’ll make the underlying data available too.

The original ethos remains: you should always learn something interesting from the chart in just a few seconds. But you will gain even more by exploring the graphic and spending time with it, just as you would with a full page of text.

To celebrate the space we have been given, the graphic we have chosen for our launch looks at, appropriately, space launches. You can find it at the back of the paper, next to the long-standing economic indicator tables. After all, data will always have a place in The Economist.

Alex Selby-Boothroyd is the head of data journalism at The Economist