Shazna Nessa: Why visual journalism is important

As part of the scoopcamp 2019, Shazna Nessa, Head of Visuals at The Wall Street Journal, will receive the scoop Award and give a keynote speech afterwards. We talked with her about visual storytelling, interdisciplinarity in teams and the future  of AI and VR.


During your last visit to scoopcamp in 2011, you discussed the disruption of digital journalism, especially in the areas of visual data journalism, which has increasingly come to the fore through research projects such as Panama Papers and Football Leaks. How did you personally perceive the development of journalism in recent years?

In my 2011 keynote at Scoopcamp I talked about the disruptions brought on by new technology, by data, by the web, and the opportunities this creates for visual and other new forms of storytelling. That same year my team at The Associated Press, where I worked at the time, won a $475,000 Knight News Challenge grant for Project Overview, which visualized patterns in large data sets, largely for reporting purposes. The amount of data in the world continues to grow. Our phones have turned into powerful computers with cameras and video recorders, screen sizes have proliferated, and new design patterns have been introduced by platforms such as Facebook, Apple, Instagram, and Snapchat.

All of this has ushered in new vitality to the field and there is so much fantastic visual and multimedia journalism being produced all over the world. While things have gotten better over the years, there is still ample room for growth in most newsrooms when it comes to prioritizing visuals and multimedia, over the default to text. Visual journalists aren’t packagers, they are using their craft to do journalism differently, with a symbiotic approach to journalism and form. Visual information often holds the most potential for imparting a lot of information efficiently.

At The Wallstreet Journal, you are responsible for the visual journalism strategy, overseeing the graphics, photography, design and news development teams. What role do new technologies like augmented and virtual reality play in your work?

We have done some great, discreet, experiments with AR and VR, which includes, among other things, this piece that places users inside a 3D visualization with live market data. But it’s not a format we have scaled in any way. It’s important to try new things, but if there isn’t broad adoption of the format it’s tricky to commit many resources to it. There’s a lot of merit in diving in and trying things out though, which builds knowledge. It’s important to be ok about trying something new, stopping if it doesn’t make sense, and then starting again if and when the world catches up.


What are the advantages of AR and VR messaging over traditional media formats?

With VR you are able to put someone inside a story, allowing them to experience something with their whole body, giving them access to sights, sounds, and scope that they normally would not be able to fathom. AR presents more accessible pathways because you can use your phone and don’t need a headset. Examples of use might include a great way to show physical comparisons, or bring 3D models or data visualizations into your front room.


I recently interviewed Nonny de la Pena at The Wall Street Journal’s “Future of Everything” conference in New York.  Nonny created the genre of VR journalism and immersive storytelling and says that AR/VR will become mainstream by 2030. It’s hard to imagine a future where we would not eschew flat screens for more evolved experiential formats. It’s the most obvious next step for certain experiences.

The journalist of today no longer only has to write, but also shoot videos, record audio sequences, take photos and edit them. Is there a trend away from experts towards allrounders?

It depends on the situation. But ideally you have lots of experts who work on projects together, otherwise you risk losing out on work of the highest quality and nuance.

Larger Big Data projects, on the other hand, cannot be handled alone and require the cooperation of a wide variety of departments. Programmers, designers and journalists work together on presenting the information. Does such interdisciplinarity improve the end product?

Most stories are collaborations at The Wall Street Journal, it’s inevitable, there’s just too much to know and one person can’t know it all. Many people in the visuals team are experts in a couple of areas, which along with journalism might include data analysis and visualization, software development,  3D skills, or design.

You recently said that it’s time for a paradigm shift. Journalists, their skills and their work must become more visible. Does this not contradict the journalistic principle that the focus should be on the article and the information and not on the author?

What I meant was that journalists who work in formats that are not text need to be more central in the newsroom, including product and engineering teams. Not as the “other” but in fact part of the core. I don’t think there’s anything wrong around more transparency around authors though, but that’s not what I was getting at.

The eleventh scoopcamp will take place on 25 September 2019, at which you will not only receive the scoop Award, but also give a keynote. In your speech entitled "Flipping the journalism paradigm with textured storytelling and design at the center". What can the visitors look forward to?

That inventiveness and innovation in journalism can impact our audience positively. And how the contemporary journalist is catching up with what visual journalists have been all along: Interdisciplinary.