The Unlikely Multimedia Path Of Guardian Interactive Guru Gabriel Dance

The computer scientist by trade put multimedia skills to use in journalism and helped usher The New York Times, News Corp., and now The Guardian into the digital era.

As an undergraduate at Colorado State, Gabriel Dance majored in computer science. But he didn't follow his peers into the technology sector. He chose to go into journalism, which in 2004 hadn't even begun to seize opportunities in the digital space.

Fast-forward to the fall of 2011. After a trailblazing path in multimedia journalism at The New York Times and News Corp's iPad newspaper, The Daily, Dance joined the U.K.-based Guardian as the paper's first interactive editor, just as The Guardian began a major effort to deepen their engagement with new and existing American readers.

"We are being given an opportunity and a mandate to build a great interactive news department from the ground up," he says.  

This all started in earnest when Dance went to grad school to study journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and found the multimedia program in 2004. "I saw that title and I thought 'What is that?' No one had heard of that at the time," Dance says. But it's where his computer skills helped him excel in the nascent world of interactive and multimedia journalism. In those dark ages before the ubiquity of social media, "interactive" primarily meant adding audio and images to print stories online. In 2006, Dance applied for an internship interview at The New York Times. Instead of an internship, however, he ended up with a full-time job in the early days of the paper's digital division.

Dance's four-and-a-half-year tenure at The New York Times saw him ultimately emerge as the Times's chief multimedia producer. After the Times, he spent five months as art director for news at The Daily. When he left The Daily last year, Dance considered going back to The New York Times, but ultimately decided to join The Guardian

Currently The Guardian U.S.'s interactive team has no U.K. counterpart. However, The Guardian conceives of the U.S. office, based in New York, as an informal lab for developing the future of the paper on both sides of the Atlantic. In a work environment that Dance says feels like a startup in terms of its energy, the interactive team sits in the actual newsroom and Dance is at the paper's regular editorial meetings. "I think too often we've seen interactive as adjunct to the news not integral to it. We very much view the community and technology teams as being part of the whole team," Janine Gibson, editor-in-chief of The Guardian U.S. says. "Why would you just have the people who write the words at the meeting?"

Gibson has watch old and new media merge at The Guardian for the last 14 years—many spent covering media. She launched the publication's media blog 12 years ago. To Gibson, The Guardian playing a bigger role online seems natural. "We've never been the establishment media, we've always been pushing the new. That's the kind of paper that we are," she says.

The Guardian, which was founded in 1821—then called The Manchester Guardian—has always been seen as somewhat of a nonconformist. "The Guardian is open about their agenda, which is representing the common man," says Dance, "As a result the interactive projects we do aim to represent the underrepresented." When The Guardian runs a long in-depth article, on any subject issue, they can't review the basics for readers who may not be up to speed. In Dance's estimation this means that they are leaving behind some of the very people The Guardian aims to serve. To address this problem, Dance and his team developed a series of "explainer videos," which use animation to help average readers navigate through complex issues, such as how Super PACs work and the in-depth issues and background to the pro's and con's around the recently proposed SOPA legislation concerning online intellectual property.

In late February, the first interactive piece in the Guardian's Citizens' Agenda Project analyzed all of the questions asked in the 20 Republican presidential 2012 debates, breaking down the percentage of questions that related to a specific candidate's record, foreign policy, national security, and dozens of other major issues. Among the other conclusions the user of this data can draw is an overlay of the questions asked by the media, as compared to the questions voters say they are interested in. "A print article wouldn't list all the questions and these percentages, but there might be a sentence that says a certain percentage of the questions were about the economy," notes Dance. "Because so much data is packed into these online tools, through interactivity we can make the story more meaningful."

Behind all of these multimedia efforts at The Guardian is a trove of data—more than any before from more debates, questions, communications, campaign events,  polls, campaign contributions from new sources, and primaries than ever. The Guardian is trying to develop interactive tools to capture all this data, and not only put it in context, but make it available to interested citizens to ask and answer their own questions—all with a U.S. staff of 40, four of which are on the interactive team. "It's a small team in numbers, but as a percentage to have 10% of the team working in interactive is really meaningful. Very few other places that I know of, including The Times, have that percentage of their team working in interactive news," Dance says. He adds that he has the deepest respect for The New York Times, but at The Guardian he feels a unique ability to experiment and try new things. Dance says knowing that the Times exists as a paper of record makes him feel comfortable experimenting.

To that effect, Dance's team is currently building process of creating their election results maps. In an effort to create the most engaging visual representation of the election results and in order to more clearly show where people in the state voted for each candidate, Dance concedes that readers will not be able to see the results of every single county in every state when they first look at the map (although they can click on a given state to get all of that information). "There's a very small audience that wants to do a deep dive on this data," Dance says. "And for that audience there are places online they can do that. There's a broader audience out there that I think isn't being heard and this interactive method can speak to them."

The interactive efforts go hand in hand with an organization-wide "open journalism" policy that The Guardian began describing last year. The policy, highlighted last week in this viral ad, actively encourages people to comment, share, and to contribute consumer reviews on books and music. They've also added a reader's editor and created an open platform for developers. When the British government released 400,000-plus documents regarding expenses of Members of Parliament, The Guardian organized the documents in a widget and over 23,000 readers volunteered to help process the data dump.

The Guardian sees open and interactive journalism as key areas to help drive overall growth in their audience. Last year, after revealing losses of 33 million pounds in 2010, The Guardian decided to adopt a "digital first" strategy. Although there are no plans to stop producing a print paper, the new strategy aims to increase The Guardian's revenues to 100 million pounds by 2016, by focusing intensely on developing the online side. This fall The Guardian launched their Social Reader Facebook app, and it received over 4 million downloads the first three months. The app has generated an estimated increase of 1 million page impressions for The Guardian's site per day. Perhaps even more importantly, given the importance of engaging the next generation, over 56% of the app's users are between the ages of 18-24.

Interactive presentations, social media tools, and creative use of video all provide deeper opportunities for engagement and increase the value and authority of The Guardian's brand. The Guardian's Global Commercial Director Chris Pelekanou believes these same features also provide increased opportunities for relevant contextualized sponsorship and advertising. Although The Guardian's interactive division has just gotten off the ground, Pelekanou is optimistic about its long-term potential. The changing landscape has changed the way they do business. "Instead of taking one or two big bets we're taking lots of smaller ones," Pelekanou says. "Historically you would evolve the product or have a huge launch. Now, there are many more things to try but the risk is smaller because the cost to experiment is smaller as well."

Despite the enthusiasm about the future of digital journalism, Dance says that some older journalists are still wary that they might be replaced by the new technology, or that the new technology somehow renders journalism less powerful or meaningful. Dance acknowledges that although some do not view his work as "real journalism," that will change. "When photojournalism first began, people debated whether or not photojournalists were real journalists. Today no one would say that photojournalists aren't journalists, it's just that they practice their trade with a camera. The only thing I care about is journalism. I just do it through TextMate and JavaScript. But I don't hand someone JavaScript and TextMate, I hand them a story that just happens to be delivered through the Internet," Dance says.

David D. Burstein is a young entrepreneur, having completed his first documentary 18 in '08. He is also the founder & executive director of the youth voter engagement not for profit Generation18. His book about the millennial generation will be published by Beacon Press in early 2013.

[Image (not of Gabriel Dance): Flickr user Gilles Chiroleu]

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3 Comments

  • Angela Phillips

    Chilling Effects is right - Dance may be good at what he does but the Guardian has been pioneering inter-active and data journalism for some time.  The work they did analysing tweet traffic over the period of last summer's riots is a case in point. And it is so old-school to talk about journalists who are wary of technology or who don't view data journalism as 'real journalism'.  Data has always been an important source of stories and having journalists with the skills to pursue and analyze data in depth is critical. The worry many journalists have is not that they have new tools to use. They worry that unless someone comes up with a clever idea to make money on line they may soon have no jobs where they can use those tools.

  • Chilling Effects

    The author seems to have forgotten that the Guardian, a British newspaper, has had an interactive team doing successful work (Wikileaks war logs, London riots visualisations, 2010 World Cup interactives, and so on) long before the Guardian set up shop in the US. Let's not forget that UK newspapers see the Guardian as the trailblazer on this side of the pond!

  • XSportSeeker

    Awesome piece!
    I'm hoping to follow his steps I guess... majored in Computer Science, decided not to follow my collegues steps, and currently on the last year of Journalism.
    My final research paper is about journalism on the web, with topics like the new digital journalism and the convergence culture, so...