How The Washington Post Is Using Data Journalism to Drive Subscriptions

How to Read This Chart capitalizes on the appeal of graphics like maps, charts and diagrams

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The Washington Post debuted its latest newsletter on Saturday, a free weekly product called How to Read This Chart, in its latest effort to coax readers into routine consumption and boost its subscription figures.

In the newsletter, journalist Philip Bump will explore a piece of data visualization––often, but not always, from The Post itself––and walk readers through its successes, flaws and information. How to Read This Chart hopes to capitalize on the appeal of graphics like maps, charts and diagrams, which have high rates of reader metrics both in terms of volume, such as unique visitors, as well as in terms of subscription conversion, said Kat Downs Mulder, chief product officer and managing editor of The Post. She declined to share specific data.

Several of The Post’s most-viewed articles of all time, such as the coronavirus simulator created by journalist Harry Stevens last spring, have been data visualizations. Graphics-centric stories are also particularly effective at turning readers into subscribers: They are often on The Post’s list of top-converting stories, Mulder said.

“​​Data visualization is something that audiences love: We see that in the volume of people coming, in their engagement and in their conversion rates,” Mulder said. “This newsletter takes data visualization and adds voice and personality—and we think that will resonate with readers.”

The newsletter comes as part of a larger effort from The Post to build out its data visualization offerings: last June, the publisher added 14 new roles to its design team, including a data editor and four graphics reporters. Given the engaging nature of visual journalism and the habit-building power of newsletters, The Post hopes How to Read This Chart will act as a vehicle for acquiring and retaining digital subscriptions. 

High-investment, high-return resources

Creating visual resources for readers requires significant investment in terms of time, data and expertise, said Arvid Tchivzhel, managing director of digital consulting at Mather Economics. 

This means that sophisticated graphics are more feasible for outlets with bigger budgets and more technical teams, making them exclusive. Research shows that when it comes to generating digital subscriptions, offering content unavailable elsewhere is key, underscoring the value of data journalism.

Data visualization is something that audiences love.

Kate Mulder, chief product officer and managing editor at The Post

Data-based visuals are also relatively shelf-stable, meaning that with minimal upkeep, they can continue to be relevant for months, even years. This means that visual journalism—for the newsrooms that can afford to produce it—can pay dividends over time, passively turning readers into subscribers long after its initial creation, Tchivzhel told Adweek.

“You write it once, build the data design once and the data source once, and then you reap the benefits in terms of engagement and subscribers over and over again,” Tchivzhel said. “It could definitely have a far greater return on investment than a lone article.”

Part of The Post’s newsletter strategy

How to Read This Chart will be free to readers in their inbox, but they will have to register an account with The Post to gain access to it. In this way, the newsletter serves a dual top-of-funnel function for the publisher: it generates new registrations, and it exposes new readers to highly engaging content.

Like all newsletters, it also cultivates habit in readers, whether subscribers or not, and reading routines help strengthen the relationship between publisher and reader. In this way, How to Read This Chart also serves subscribers, giving them yet another reason to continue consuming Post reporting.

The newsletter also emphasizes the voice and personality of its author. Prior to The Post, Bump was a designer at Adobe, making him a unique authority on the subject of visuals. He also writes with a humorous bent, a conversational style that can cultivate a more intimate relationship between reader and product

In recent months, The New York Times and The Atlantic have also unveiled newsletter suites built around the personalities of their authors, a response in part to the popularity of platforms like Substack. 

The challenges of email 

For all the merits of the newsletter form, email is still limited in its functionality, Tchivzhel said. Inboxes are inhospitable to complex visuals, posing an inherent challenge to a product like How to Read This Chart.

In the first iteration of the newsletter, which explored a tornado chart (named after its visual form), the graphic under inspection remains at the top of the email, meaning readers move farther from the visual the more they read. This kind of friction is hardly a dealbreaker, but it hints at the limits of the form.

Still, the product is in its infancy, and Bump will be given ample time to experiment, Mulder said. And if any newsletter understood the value of iterative design, it would be this one.