Times Insider delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how news, features and opinion come together at The New York Times.
The idea behind the recent redesign of the Sunday Business section is that business is colorful — with rich characters and compelling stories. Of several new columns that debuted last week, the one that takes that premise most literally is Meanwhile, illustrated by the graphic journalist Wendy MacNaughton. Each Sunday, she’ll examine a seemingly insignificant object, an unfamiliar personality or a subtle trend in the economy. There’s nothing else quite like it in the paper.
We chatted as her second piece, the surging market for air-filtration masks in smoke-ridden California, was about to be published.
A. I’m interested in people, places and things we usually overlook. I use life drawing and interviews as my way to explore the stories behind these things: how they connect to our daily lives, our culture, our priorities, our interests — the little things that show us who we are now. You know, just our general shared humanity. No big.
Be honest: When you got my email out of the blue and saw the words “Business section,” what was your immediate reaction? Why did you want to work in our corner of the news?
I thought you all were crazy. Trust me, you do not want my stock tips. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. People who are busy and who maybe look past the little things (and people) — that’s the audience of Sunday Business. And I’m thrilled that The Times is embracing visual storytelling.
Also, if I recall correctly, when we met I kind of tried to explain that you were making a mistake. I think I said, “You’ve seen my work, right?” and you made a strong argument I had not considered before, and something that I’m looking forward to exploring and learning from: Everything connects to business. I think that’s right. I do think that there is an element of economics and policy in everything around us. I’m excited to lean in to that a little and see what I find.
You describe your pieces as a combination of journalism, illustration and social work. Can you elaborate?
I draw from life when I can. It puts me in a place, in an experience and a moment, and creates opportunity for conversation: I meet people through drawing on site. That connects with my being trained as a social worker. Social work practice is centered on promoting self-actualization and empowerment, and in storytelling terms what that means is I’m interested in elevating the voices of people whose stories don’t usually get told.
When you’re out in the field, what’s in your gear kit?
A sketchbook, either Aquabee or New Soho; a handful of fresh waterproof pens, either Uni-Ball or Micron; and my phone, to record if I’m drawing while interviewing or can’t scribble fast enough. I also use it to take pictures for color reference to paint from later.
You travel a lot. Where would you most like to go on a reporting trip?
This column came at an exciting time. Over the past six-plus months, I’ve been taking lengthy road trips around the United States, interviewing and drawing people I meet. My only destination is a rule: I ask the people I meet where I should go next.
Despite working in a lot of places around the globe, it’s these travels around my own country that I find most challenging and eye-opening in terms of the different ways we each experience the world. See you soon, Great Lakes.
What is it about illustration that opens up a whole new range of story possibilities, versus the traditional written approach?
I just think it can communicate a moment, a circumstance or an emotion in a different way than writing and photography can. It literally “re-presents” something and asks the reader to reconsider it, to read more into it. I also create charts and graphs — for example, I worked with The Times Magazine’s Samin Nosrat to create illustrations and infographics for her cookbook, “Salt Fat Acid Heat.” They didn’t just depict things literally, but provided information or an experience that text alone could not. I think when we start seeing illustration as more than just a complement to text, and in fact a storytelling device in itself, the possibilities open way up. I’m excited to have this space to explore them here. Every. Darn. Week. Speaking of which — I really need to get back to work.
Nick Summers is The Times’s Sunday Business editor.
Keep up with Times Insider stories on Twitter, via the Reader Center: @ReaderCenter.