How the NYT graphics team prepped for and carried out its Sochi Olympics plan

The New York Times’ graphics team began working on the many explanatory, video-based interactives and composite images for the Winter Olympics many months in advance.

When the Olympics roll around every two years, virtually every news site covers it in one way or another. For interactive teams in particular, the Olympic spectacle provides a wealth of opportunity to craft stories that are beautiful, functional and informational.

For Sochi many newsrooms put together great packages (some personal favorites include The Guardian’s Sochi Venue Guide and The Washington Post’s Mountains of the Olympics graphic), but I was particularly taken with the scale of the work The New York Times put out — from the heartbreaking “Fourth Place” series to the first-person videos and narrations and detailed composite images.

But all that work begs the question, just how did the Times’ produce so many immersive graphics during the two weeks of the games? The answer isn’t that surprising — it’s a lot of planning and strategic project management.

The planning

Wilson Andrews, a graphics editor at the Times who started last October, said the department began work on the early stages more than six months before the February games began.

“They’d been working for at least a couple months, shooting some of the video for the big video interactives and planning out what events they wanted to cover,” Wilson said.

To create the immersive video experiences, members of the team traveled to the athletes’ training grounds last fall to film, shoot and report. By the time the Games began, these explanatory pieces had already been completed, and the team could focus their attention on news that broke during the games and results.

Andrews, who worked primarily on the composite images, said the goal was to explain the often obtuse, hard-to-understand sports in a way that was both visually pleasing and comprehensible. When brainstorming the best way to present the composite images, he says the team went through several iterations before settling on wide-frame, highly-detailed still images.

"We quickly found out that those composites were the most compelling thing, the most unique,” he said. “We had played around with animating them, but stuck with the whole 'easy-to-use composite' that lets you see what the athletes were doing in such rapid movements … We hadn’t seen anyone else do that and it was a nice way to get into the techniques of those sports.”

Composite images, like this one of Mikaela Shiffrin's slalom run, were the backbone of the graphics team's coverage.

The process

The key to producing composites of live events was to develop a system in advance to create and post the images as soon quickly as possible.

The group was divided into five three-person teams of visual journalists. Each team was assigned to an event to cover and began with an intense research and pre-reporting process in the weeks before the games. Andrews, whose team focused on figure skating, said that each journalist aimed to be as educated with their designated sport as possible before the event. They contacted sources (usually experts or ex-Olympians) with whom they would speak right before and immediately after the event so that each composite would be accompanied by thorough reporting and analysis right away.

During the events themselves, members of the team in Sochi would shoot the event and run the images through a Photoshop script they'd written prior to the games, said Larry Buchanan, a Times graphics editor. The script detected the differences between images and created a composite that was “80 percent” there, Buchanan said.

They also built a variety of modules beforehand to create composites, diptychs, or finisher’s graphics depending on the sport. One of the reasons the team was able to get the graphics up so quickly is because their system allowed them to work as a singular unit.

“We function as a standalone entity that produces our own stuff,” Buchanan said. “To that end, we can explain the nitty-gritty details of what’s going on in these sports better than sometimes [written] stories can.”

The goal of all the breaking coverage was to provide a unique insight to the readers that they couldn’t find elsewhere — and to push the envelope in storytelling for the web, Buchanan said. He specifically pointed to the graphic of Mikaela Shiffrin’s gold-medal slalom run, which combined a quilt image, a composite and finisher’s graphic all in one, as a particularly good example:

“By the time [Shiffrin] won the slalom, some of us had composite fatigue,” he said. “That was one of the last events we covered live, and we hadn’t seen a composite of that magnitude. That one got everything…It feels so native to the web medium. You’re scrolling down and it reveals how she moves, like you’re going down the mountain with her.”

To create a new experience, sometimes it’s all about putting things into perspective. Buchanan said that his favorite graphic from the entirety of the games was, “Is that a Luge in Times Square?” which illustrated what the Olympic venues would look like if they were plopped in the middle of Manhattan.

“You can’t get a scale of how big these buildings are until you juxtapose them,” he said. “So how can we create that impossible scenario for you? By using these alternative storytelling techniques we’re pushing forward what it takes to create a little story."

The months of planning and meticulous execution allowed the team to create dozens of varied and expansive graphics for the two-week Sochi games, giving users a unique—and most importantly—informative look into the Winter Olympics.

About the author

Priya Krishnakumar

Undergraduate Fellow

Latest Posts

  • Prototyping Augmented Reality

    Something that really frustrates me is that, while I’m excited about the potential AR has for storytelling, I don’t feel like I have really great AR experiences that I can point people to. We know that AR is great for taking a selfie with a Pikachu and it’s pretty good at measuring spaces (as long as your room is really well lit and your phone is fully charged) but beyond that, we’re really still figuring...

    Continue Reading

  • Capturing the Soundfield: Recording Ambisonics for VR

    When building experiences in virtual reality we’re confronted with the challenge of mimicking how sounds hit us in the real world from all directions. One useful tool for us to attempt this mimicry is called a soundfield microphone. We tested one of these microphones to explore how audio plays into building immersive experiences for virtual reality. Approaching ambisonics with the soundfield microphone has become popular in development for VR particularly for 360 videos. With it,...

    Continue Reading

  • How to translate live-spoken human words into computer “truth”

    Our Knight Lab team spent three months in Winter 2018 exploring how to combine various technologies to capture, interpret, and fact check live broadcasts from television news stations, using Amazon’s Alexa personal assistant device as a low-friction way to initiate the process. The ultimate goal was to build an Alexa skill that could be its own form of live, automated fact-checking: cross-referencing a statement from a politician or otherwise newsworthy figure against previously fact-checked statements......

    Continue Reading

  • Northwestern is hiring a CS + Journalism professor

    Work with us at the intersection of media, technology and design.

    Are you interested in working with journalism and computer science students to build innovative media tools, products and apps? Would you like to teach the next generation of media innovators? Do you have a track record building technologies for journalists, publishers, storytellers or media consumers? Northwestern University is recruiting for an assistant or associate professor for computer science AND journalism, who will share an appointment in the Medill School of Journalism and the McCormick School...

    Continue Reading

  • Introducing StorylineJS

    Today we're excited to release a new tool for storytellers.

    StorylineJS makes it easy to tell the story behind a dataset, without the need for programming or data visualization expertise. Just upload your data to Google Sheets, add two columns, and fill in the story on the rows you want to highlight. Set a few configuration options and you have an annotated chart, ready to embed on your website. (And did we mention, it looks great on phones?) As with all of our tools, simplicity...

    Continue Reading

  • Join us in October: NU hosts the Computation + Journalism 2017 symposium

    An exciting lineup of researchers, technologists and journalists will convene in October for Computation + Journalism Symposium 2017 at Northwestern University. Register now and book your hotel rooms for the event, which will take place on Friday, Oct. 13, and Saturday, Oct. 14 in Evanston, IL. Hotel room blocks near campus are filling up fast! Speakers will include: Ashwin Ram, who heads research and development for Amazon’s Alexa artificial intelligence (AI) agent, which powers the...

    Continue Reading

Storytelling Tools

We build easy-to-use tools that can help you tell better stories.

View More