| April 24
April 24 If you're the nautical sort, you
probably interpret the news as a flow. If you hunt and peck on
the typewriter, your news feed might resemble a pointillistic
painting. But if you love to break ideas down into their
sequential components, keep your socks folded and sorted by
color in a dresser, compose everything you write with an
outliner and consider a pair of tweezers a blunt instrument,
then you probably view the news through the schematic eyes of
Hilary Sargent, the creative force behind the ChartGirl website
( chartgirl.com/ ).
Since November, Sargent has been sorting and reordering the
chaotic sewer of breaking news into lucid and logical
text-and-graphics charts. When the top story was General David
Petraeus's affair with Paula Broadwell, Sargent straightened the
"endless story angles" with an annotated chart depicting the
major players in the scandal - from Jill Kelley to Senator
Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), from Harvard University's John F.
Kennedy School of Government to the U.S. Attorney's Office in
Tampa - and plotted the salient interconnections.
Better than a New York Times write-through of all known
facts about the scandal, ChartGirl collected the known knowns,
the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns in concise and
puckish fashion. (Connecting Broadwell with Michelle Obama with
a line, Sargent asked, "Who has better arms?")
In early December, with John McAfee on the lam, Sargent
extracted from the event the three dozen most important
institutions, individuals and plot elements (e.g., a tampon,
four poisoned dogs, Vice magazine, "bath salts") and arranged
them like wheel spokes around a McAfee head shot to bring
coherence to the tumult. Later that month, Sargent applied her
news-mapping skills to the awfulness of the Westboro Baptist
Church and to Donald Trump's feuds with such celebrities as
Rihanna, Carrie Prejean, Rosie O'Donnell, Al Neuharth and
Stephen Colbert. Since then, she's diagrammed the news behind
the Bill Ackman vs. Carl Icahn battle, the highlights of the
Gardner Museum heist, and, last week, press corps Boston
Marathon bombings hits and misses.
If you see the world through the eyes of a press critic, and
I pity you if you do, Sargent's work sometimes reads like A.J.
Liebling turned graphics freak. In this week's "Covering the
Coverage," which provides further assessment of the media's
treatment of the Boston story, she pours a whole colony of fire
ants on the press corps.
But in an interview, Sargent cites artist Mark Lombardi,
whose "Narrative Structures" gave visual form to conspiracies,
political scandals and financial crimes, as primary inspiration.
Sargent says she also admires Edward Tufte's work and recently
took his seminar, but adds this disclaimer: "My charts break so
many Ed Tufte rules that I think it would be unfair to him to
say he's an influence."
Although Sargent dabbled in journalism at the turn of the
century, working at the Boston Globe and completing an
internship at the Wall Street Journal, she has worked for the
past decade as a researcher and consultant in Washington and New
In 2006, while working for the Senate Majority Project, a
527 group, she constructed her first chart to organize
information about holdings in the portfolio of then-Senator Ted
Stevens (R-Alaska). Later, while working for a private
investigative firm in New York, she made numerous charts to
describe money laundering operations and international asset
"It was there that the charts really began to become my
thing," Sargent says. "Usually they started out on giant
whiteboards or 20 pieces of 8½-by-11 paper taped together, and
then I would digitize them for client deliverables."
Working at a New York law firm as an investigator, Sargent
relied on her charts to divine the structure of businesses and
financial instruments she was studying, and to convey that
structure to the staff attorneys.
"So often the charts were just done in pencil for myself, so
that I could understand. And then sometimes they were turned
into something more formal," says Sargent, who is now a
self-employed investigative research consultant.
The idea for ChartGirl came to Sargent the night the
Petraeus scandal broke. Attempting to explain the bizarre
particulars to a friend, she drew a chart and uploaded it to her
Facebook page. Gawker used it as the bedrock for its own chart,
and The Atlantic re-posted her original. Since then, her work
has earned mentions and re-publication at Boing Boing, Mental
Floss, Good and elsewhere.
"It turns out if you don't have a website, it's really hard
to take or get credit for something," she says. Her cousin, Lee
Sargent, built a quickie website for her. She cleaned up the
Petraeus chart and started adding charts. Last December she
persuaded Lee to rebuild the site, and they decided to dub it
I've avoided expressing how funny ChartGirl can be because I
don't want to marginalize it as a joke book. Sargent
understands, unlike so many journalists, that a tiny dose of wit
can open readers to arguments and presentations they might not
otherwise endure. There's no reason that consuming the news
should be a slog! So when explaining the Ackman-Icahn contest,
Sargent fills boxes with the details of who hates whom in duels,
giving the story a useful comic skeleton onto which the meat and
organs of exposition are hung. This is brainy news analysis that
makes the veins on your temples rise and stand.
There's nothing particularly "webby" to Sargent's charts.
She has yet to probe the interactive frontiers in the way my
former colleagues Chris Wilson (now at Yahoo) and Jeremy
Singer-Vine (Wall Street Journal) do. Instead, she straddles the
space between the two-dimensional, black-and-white editorial
cartoon, the explanatory feature and the cheat sheet, bringing
order to the narrative frenzy. Newspaper, magazine and Web
editors desperate to bring lazy readers up to speed on complex
stories would be wise (hint, hint) to assign Sargent to chart
the news for them, an option she seems open to.
"For now I'm just making charts and hoping people like them,
and then making more charts," she says. "I guess long-term I'm
not looking at this as a non-profit. I don't have a business
(Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist covering the press and