Featured Member: Susan McGregor

By on April 30, 2012

Location: New York
Current Gig: Assistant Professor at Columbia Journalism School with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism
Quick and Dirty Resume: I was the Senior Programmer of the Online News Graphics team at the Wall Street Journal for four years, where I developed the paper’s first database-driven online visualizations. In 2010, I was named as a winner in the Gerald Loeb Awards’ “Online Enterprise” category for my work on the Journal’s “What They Know” series, and I was also a finalist for the 2007 Scripps Howard award in Web Reporting. At Columbia, I focus on data journalism and visualization, collaborating closely with news organizations and computer scientists to develop real-world applications that can advance the industry and practice of journalism.
Six-word memoir:: Computers and theater, thanks Brenda Laurel.
Favorite fictional character: Curious George
Favorite tech tool? Tough one. Going to have to go with Google Fusion Tables, and/or Google Refine for now. Visualization and data are my thing.

What happens during your average day?

As in a newsroom, there’s really no “average” day in academia. I usually spend about half my time prepping and/or reviewing assignments and tutorials, and meeting with students to discuss projects or individual work. I also try to spend about a third of my time discussing potential collaborations with colleagues in the school or at the School of Engineering, as well as with news organizations and tech companies around the city. The last bit I spend organizing events here at the school and/or attending them elsewhere – staying current is essential.

Why did you choose to get involved with online media?

I grew up with the internet, and it was clear to me that being involved with technology was a career path that would never get boring. I was also a longtime (if very private) nonfiction writer, which naturally drew me to journalism. Finally, I really, really believe in the capacity for journalism and technology to enhance personal agency. I’m extremely passionate about that.

When did you know it was the right time to transition from the Wall Street Journal into academia?

Working at the Journal taught me a great deal about the choices and challenges involved in producing high-quality journalism in an evolving publishing landscape. While it’s an enormous privilege to produce work that’s seen by tens of thousands of people every day, the pace of the newsroom doesn’t allow much time for reflection. As we continually embraced new technologies, I found myself wanting a deeper understanding of how our audience was really engaging with our platforms and material, and use those insights to begin thinking about how we could make our work even more compelling and valuable. At the same time, I found that I really enjoyed the opportunities I had to teach my colleagues tricks and tools that enhanced their journalism, and was thrilled at the opportunity to do that for new journalists in a more coherent way. I consider education the third point in the triumvirate of personal agency.

Why is data visualization important to the future of journalism?

At this point, it’s sort of pat to say that data is important to the future of every field – and journalism is certainly no exception. At the same time, there’s a danger of being overawed by data in its sheer volume and apparent authority. Data visualization is important to the future of journalism because it’s an essential mechanism for analyzing all that data, and, eventually, communicating its meaning to our audiences. On a strictly practical level, too, journalists must be able to evaluate graphics as sources, and know how to judge their accuracy and validity. As an industry, we need to become more visually and numerically literate.

If you had a million dollars dedicated to improving media, you would …

Fund very detailed ethnographic studies of how individuals use media and technology on a daily basis – from urban iPhone users to rural radio listeners. The vast quantities of data that news organizations now have about the page views on an article or the number of times a video has been streamed does very little to illuminate how our audiences did (or didn’t) make use of that media; we need an informed framework to meaningfully interpret the data. While digital traces can help us understand the “what” of users’ media habits, we still need to know the “why.” And for that I don’t think anything will beat good, old-fashioned, on-the-ground research.