The Newsweek Infographic That Made Me Cry
In 1999 I was invited to a meeting in Newsweek managing editor, Jon Meacham’s, office to discuss a double gatefold (two pages that unfold to open into a four-page spread) to kick off the primaries for the following week’s election issue. A few others were there, including political reporter Jonathan Alter, National News Editor Tom Watson and AME for Design, Lynn Staley. These monster information graphics were printed on Friday night, a day before the rest of the magazine went to bed, to prevent a bottleneck at the presses.
SWIMMING IN CONTENT
I was the Director of Information Graphics and my dept. would be producing it over the course of four days. As we brainstormed ideas for content, I doodled in the margins of my notebook (below) as everyone tossed out their wish lists for content. The final list:
- explain for each party’s challenges and a key issue that the Republican and Democratic candidates would need to address in each state (that’s 100 text blocks!)
- profile the frontrunners on each side
- explain Super Tuesday and Southern Tuesday
- what are key states to win and why
- include a glossary to define terms like ‘superdelegate’
- show a timeline of when each state is holding it’s primary or caucus
- show the number of delegates in each state and break down how many were pledged to a candidate or were superdelegates
- profile the Republican and Democratic conventions: how many delegates would be needed to win the nomination, where are they being held, when, etc.
- oh wait! Don’t forget the Reform party. Explain their convention and candidates
With such a hodgepodge of elements, I needed a framework that would, in effect, take the reader by the hand and lead them though it all. For the first time in my career, I used the a game board approach, something I had always avoided and felt was a cliché.
So sue me.
Lynn Staley brought in the great caricature artist (and terrific guy) John Kascht, from Washington, D.C., to do the illustrations. We put him up at the uber-fancy Essex House hotel on New York’s Central Park West a few blocks away (I stayed there hundreds of glorious nights during my decade at Newsweek when deadlines prevented me from getting home to Connecticut) and, though we had an office set aside for him to use at Newsweek, he preferred to work from his hotel room (it DOES have sweeping views of Central Park… and room service!). As usual, he did a wonderful job, particularly on such a tight deadline.
SO, ABOUT THIS CRYING THING
Managing Editor Meacham had stopped by my office on Friday when the graphic was due to make sure that it would be at the printer by midnight. Being late was not an option. At 11 p.m. the graphic was done and I was relaxed and thinking about heading home.
The gatefold was moving along the proofing and copy-desk pipeline as I tweaked minor details in QuarkXpress and Adobe Illustrator, like fine-tuning the rotation of the 100 text blocks and gently nudging the .5 line of the timeline and the circular icons that paralleled the game board.
I GET BAD NEWS
Just then, one of our graphics researchers came into my office and said,
“Karl, it seems they’ve updated the Democratic timeline and some of the states have switched around.”
I thought, in a panic, that even if only one state was out of place it would mean that half the graphic would need a complete makeover! The state would have to wedge it in between two other states and slide all of the others around the game board to make room. Icons would have to move, all the text blocks would have to be carefully rotated into precise position and the timeline would have to be completely re-done. My blood drained.
“How many states?” I asked.
“WHAT? How could we not know this?”
It was true. My fight or flight response immediately kicked in and my senses sharped, anticipating the brain challenge ahead. I flew to the door and called in our intern, Stephen Totilo, who was about as intelligent as a human being gets, and sat him next to me, asking him to help me solve this puzzle and tell me where each state was supposed to be. He was brilliant.
“Move Alabama up here…slide Montana down here…insert California here….”
At midnight, Meacham came in and asked if we were done with the gatefold. I told him. Without expression, he said,
“Just come find me when it’s done.”
My boss, Lynn Staley, came in awhile later with a look of unbridled concern on her face.
THEN, I GET WORSE NEWS
Two hours later, at about 1:30 a.m., an hour and a half past deadline, we were still working on it when the researcher came in and said,
“Uh, Karl, it looks like we have the SAME ISSUE for the Republican side.”
I stared at the researcher as resignation washed over me and my body went limp. Fire me now. No, forget it, I’ll just quit my job. Being late meant that there would be a bottleneck which would delay the printing of Newsweek and, since the same trucks around the country delivered Time and a jillion other magazines, it would delay their delivery, too, as drivers waited around earning overtime.
All because of me.
But this graphic wasn’t going to get done by itself, so Stephen and I kept slugging away at this train wreck, struggling to re-d0 in hours what had initially taken four days to do. My stress level was at an all-time high. As the hours passed, the world around me vanished, except for the God-like voice of Stephen the Intern and the minutia of the graphic on my monitor. There could not be a single error on this spread. My body was stiff as I mechanically obeyed the orders that were barking in my ear.
At about 3:30 a.m. Lynn burst into my office with the suddenness of Kramer entering Seinfeld’s apartment.
“What’s happening here??”
And that’s when it happened. As I spun my chair around to face her I said, choked up by my own words and tears firing at her with the explosive power of SCUD missiles,
“This thing is all FUCKED UP!”
And I swung around right back to work. Realizing the best action was no action, Lynn returned to her office. At 5 a.m., with briefcase in hand and Humphrey Bogart raincoat tied at the waist, Meacham popped his head in the door and said,
“I”ll be in my apartment waiting. Send it over when your finished.”
Meacham read everything that went in the magazine, of course. Several of my staff were poring over parts of the graphic as we finished them, checking carefully for errors. We were used to all-nighters.
We sent the finished graphic over to Meacham at 7 a.m. My phone rang shortly after.
“It’s fine. Nice job.”
What a guy.
VIDEO WITH ME TALKING ABOUT THE GRAPHIC, LIKE NOTHING HAPPENED
Here is a short Newsweek election promo video that shows me talking about the gatefold (at the 3:00 mark).