March 21, 2016

The Above Chart Manifesto

The New York Tribune, Sept. 29, 1849


Data journalism started way before you think it did. 

We have been sharing data and statistics that help us figure out how best to live our lives since way before the words “data” and “statistics” were commonly used, and before news was anything like what we know today. The very earliest newspapers contained tables of shipping news and commodities prices. Weekly reports of births and deaths were printed and sold 400 years ago.

As our ability to visualize data became more sophisticated, and as data literacy increased, the information displays in news became more advanced. History is full of beautiful and weird examples, vast leaps forward mixed with oddball miscues.

Those examples are what Above Chart will be all about.
As a data journalist and designer, I firmly believe that I inherit my craft not just from people like Charles Joseph Minard and John Snow, but from the anonymous mapmaker and engraver of charts who toiled through the night in a newspaper composing room, building diagrams for the next day’s paper with imperfect data and more than a little ingenuity.
I’ve been studying this forgotten history of data in journalism for a few years, and have collected hundreds of amazing examples. I’ll republish maps, charts, diagrams and stories published in newspapers from the 18th century through the early 20th century (and a few even before that).
I’m an imperfect historian, but an indefatigable nerd. I’m sure to discombobulate the facts occasionally but I hope that the graphics I revive will be worth it.
I sometimes do presentations on this topic, and when I do I inevitably run into somebody who has a great example to share. Many curious journalists peek into the archives at their own newsroom and bring back remarkable finds. I’m always looking for more old data stories to retell. Please send what you’ve found my way —