April 24 (Reuters) - 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 York.
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 tracing.
“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 ChartGirl.
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 model yet.”
Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist covering the press and politics. Jack Shafer