Interview with Alan Taylor, Creator of Boston Globe's The Big Picture


Alan Taylor, The Big Picture
Photo by Buster McLeod

With its vibrant oversized photographs and minimalist design, the Boston Globe’s The Big Picture weblog launched on June 1 to instant global acclaim. It’s designed, programmed, and written by Alan Taylor, an old-school web programmer and blogger, in his spare time while working on community features at Boston.com. (You might know Alan from his popular MegaPenny Project, Amazon Light, or his other projects.)

The idea’s simple, but extremely effective. Spend a few minutes with the Iowa floods, the faces of Sudan, or the daily life in Sadr City, and you feel like you’ve opened a window to another world.

I interviewed Alan about the inspiration for the site, his methodology, and what it’s like being a programmer in a journalist’s world.

The Big Picture’s become an essential read for me, and I totally agree with Jason Kottke when he called it “the best new blog of the year.” What inspired it?

Alan Taylor: Lots of things — my parents used to always have Life and National Geographic magazines around the house, I fell in love with the visual storytelling way back then. When I was getting my feet wet in the online journalism world as a developer at msnbc.com, I had the good fortune of working alongside Brian Storm and a few others in MSNBC’s photo department, who were just phenomenal as far as selection, editing and presentation.

I wondered why other sites didn’t reach that level. Many have by now, but I was still frustrated by the presentation — either far too small, or trapped in click-after-click interfaces that were in Flash or just acted as ad farms.


How did you pitch it to the Boston Globe? Was there any resistance?

Not really any resistance, but a lot of “hmm, well, we need to check on it.” Mostly things to do with licenses and contracts with image providers. I put together a few mockups that look almost exactly like the final product and shopped it around. A few people loved it, went crazy for it… Others weren’t immediately sold, but I asked for a chance, and I got it.

I have an advantage in that my main role is as a developer here, so I could build all my own templates, format my own style, and so on. I sort of bulldozed some things through though, like extra width, few ads, and I made it simple internally by doing it mostly on my own, no requests for development time, marketing or promotion. After the legal questions were settled, I was free to try it out. It took off fast.

Isn’t that unprecedented? For a web developer at a newspaper to get their own column?

I don’t know. I guess the first thing that springs to mind is the New York Times’ Open Blog — where it’s mostly techno-focused, but still an interesting format. I did feel that I had to make some kickass mockups to show the editorial group that I had a good eye and decent judgement. That really helped them give the go-ahead.

Again, I got no pushback, just a lot of “Oh, well, this is new, um, okay, let’s try it,” you know. Plus, I didn’t ask anyone else to do any extra work.

Were there any issues in getting permission to publish images that large from the wire photo services? The photos on the Big Picture must be twice the size of any other news site.

We looked at the contracts pretty well and couldn’t identify anything that prevented this sort of thing. The general rule appears to be (my understanding of it) that the images should not be easily reproduced in print. Big Picture images max out at 990 pixels wide at 72dpi. If you scale that up to print resolution of 300dpi, you get an image that’s only about 2 inches wide, so we’d appear to be within that limit.

I think it may just be conventional wisdom and some old one-size-fits-all templates that hem in other sites. Not every picture site needs to be gigantic, but a few should, considering what’s available and what people are capable of viewing.

Tell me a little bit about your curating process. Are you browsing the wire randomly for amazing photos and building a post around it, or do you start with the story you want to tell?

A little of both. Browsing the wire is really fun, and leads to some incredible finds. If there’s a specific story I want to tell, I’m at the mercy of what I can find. Sometimes there’s a lot, other times, not. For instance, I’m dying to do some “daily life” entries about Iran, but the wire feeds I have available have almost no images from there at all, other than photos of Ahmadinejad — but that’s not what I’m after. I try to stock up for a rainy day too. I have some stored searches, some favorite photographers, some perpetually interesting subjects, and so on. I’m trying to automate the gathering as much as possible.

What kind of tools?

I use Firefox to browse the wire on an internal site, wired up with Greasemonkey scripts to give me decent-sized thumbs, extract caption and photo ID from the IMG tags. When I find an image I like, I save it to a local folder until I get about 25 or so good ones to choose from. Then I open all 25 in Photoshop, arrange the windows in a horizontal tile and drag them around to get a rough ordering that makes sense. Then I start to edit out images that don’t make the cut, run a couple of recorded Photoshop Actions to size the images, and do some hand-cropping if necessary.

I also wrote a Photoshop script in Javascript that will grab all the images in a given folder and generate HTML with proper heights and widths for the images — that’s what I use as the body of the entry. Then I paste in captions (with some editing), grab some relevant links, write a short intro and post it.

Clever. I noticed that the Big Picture’s wider than any other page on Boston.com, even wider than the navigation bar. How’d you pick the size?

After googling some design sites where they were talking about optimum size for a blog template and finding no great consensus, I just punted a bit. You take a typical 1024 pixel-wide screen, subtract 34 pixels (enough to cover most browser’s scrollbars), and you get 990px. I wanted to go as big as I reasonably could without causing horizontal scrollbars on most screens.

Is Boston.com planning on integrating The Big Picture into the site at all? The only reference outside the registration-wall I could find was a single link on the Blogs page.

It’s been featured on the “Inside Boston.com” sidebar a few times, has a semi-permanent link in the left column of the News page. I think they (we) are still working on the relationship between articles written for the Globe that are online, and content that is produced for our online property only. It’s a tough nut to crack. Scott Karp really hit the nail on the head. Newspapers websites are still gelling into whatever it is they will become in a few years (or more).

It’s funny, but not too surprising, that the biggest innovation in photojournalism right now is coming from a computer programmer. Browsing the major newspaper sites, it’s rare to see more than a single small photo accompanying an article and the occasional slideshow. Is that a legacy of the newspapers’ print origins?

Good question. Even some of my favorite photo sites are often limited to “Photo of the Day” or “24 Hours in Pictures” features. That’s interesting, and you can find some mind-blowing images there, but I always felt like it lacked context, depth, story. When there is more to the story, it’s often just a link to a news story, not more photos. I think msnbc.com and the Washington Post are doing quite well though.

It’s interesting, you don’t link to Boston Globe articles about the photos you’re posting. In fact, one of the only external links I’ve seen is on your most recent Mars post, and you link to the primary sources instead of the Globe article. No pressure to link to other parts of the site?

Yeah, no pressure to link to anything in particular. I do try to keep it in the New York Times family when possible — if the links are good, I’ll take them from anywhere.

How’s the response been? I’ve seen the buzz in the blog world and the over-the-top positive comments in every one of your posts.

Yeah — totally unreal. Over-the-top positive response. More than I expected for sure. Internally, externally, everywhere, people are being really thankful to me. I need to make sure (with some link-love in my upcoming blogroll) that the response gets directed to the photographers as well. I’m just a web developer with access to their photos and a blog — they’re the ones out there working hard to get these amazing images. “Photographers” here is a loose term, encompassing photojournalists, stringers, amateurs, scientific imaging teams and more.

The blog really launched on June 1st (I had a few earlier posts, but hadn’t opened it up yet). In its first 20 days of existence, it’s almost reached 1.5 million pageviews and over 1,500 comments for just 20 entries. It’s also brought out a lot of emotion — commenters can really go crazy on some of these entries. It adds to the mix, that’s for sure.

There’s also a lot of international attention, relatively. Largely, I think, due to the visual nature of the blog.

How are you balancing your coding responsibilities of your job with this newfound editorial popularity?

Ha! The clock doesn’t stop. Big Picture right now is a side project for sure, and I spend some off-work time compiling it. I just announced that I’m going to three postings a week instead of every weekday, just for sanity’s sake. Each entry is about 2-3 hours of work. My main responsibility is helping add community features to the rest of Boston.com.

In journalism, the divide between salaries for engineers and journalists can be pretty wide. Often, a relatively junior programmer can make more than a senior writer. Are there any complications with getting paid a relatively high software developer’s salary for doing a writer or editor’s job?

I was a bit worried at first that I’d be stepping on toes — treading on other people’s domain or doing someone else’s job, but so far there doesn’t seem to be anything but love for it. I think everyone know that what I’m doing is a side project, not what I’m mainly being paid for.

Programming expertise is rare in journalism, I think partly because of the lure of tech company salaries. Historically, I think there was a reluctance to pay enough to be competitive when it meant a programmer would be making as much as a senior editor. But I assume that’s changing… The New York Times, for example, is getting incredibly talented people.

Yeah, I had a lot of friends who looked at me like I was crazy when I joined the Boston Globe a few years ago. But it’s precisely this sort of opportunity I was hoping for. The access to great storytelling resources, a great platform, and the ability to contribute to that, albeit in a more technical role. I saw the opportunity and ran with it, with everyone’s blessing. It’s a very hard question — how to attract programmers to journalism roles. For me, it’s just far more interesting than, say, working on a massive financial services backend system.

Finally, as someone obviously passionate about photojournalism, have you tried it yourself?

Yes, and I suck! When I was in college, I tried to get into a “Visual Communications” major but found that even though I knew what a good photo looked like, I could never make the damn camera do what I wanted. All my photos look like pedestrian snapshots or worse. I have a lot of respect for the skill of the pros.

John Gruber told me that when he saw the site, his first thought was, “I can’t believe nobody has done this before.”

Same thing my wife said, and many others. I know it’s totally copy-able, I just hope it inspires good new stuff.

There have been photoblogs using similar formats with images just as large, but I can’t recall any that did what you’re doing, with multiple high-res photos on a single page around a theme. It would’ve had to come out in the last couple years, simply because of changing bandwidth and screen sizes.

Yeah, maybe right time, right place? Bandwidth concerns aren’t huge, I’m just a blip in overall traffic. 1024 pixel screen sizes are more prevalent, more people have faster connections. When considering that, everyone seems to go right to thinking about video, but you can get so much quality from a good still image. So why not go that route as well?

Thanks, Alan!

25 thoughts on “Interview with Alan Taylor, Creator of Boston Globe's The Big Picture

  1. I wish he would link to the original images when they’re from public sources like NASA or the Library of Congress.

  2. I’d seen a few links to it, but wasn’t really aware it was a proper enterprise – I’d put it down as yet another digg/reddit-bait site.

  3. I love The Big Picture. Barry does a great job of interpreting the markets; finding some funny Street oddities, cheaters, scoundrels. I’m sad he hasn’t found time for the Sunday linkfest over teh past several months. As the markets go through the credit crisis induced contortions, the site is indispensible.

  4. I think Big Picture is marvellous. Keep up the good work.

    You might also want to check out the photographers’ blog @ Reuters, for some depth beyond the “Best in last 24hrs Slideshow”

    http://blogs.reuters.com/photo/

    But of course it still doesn’t do the BIG picture thing with its source images.

    (For purposes of full disclosure, I am Thomson Reuters employee, but have nothing to do with the Media side of the business, I’m just a photography fan)

  5. Oops just realised that Alan himself had already provided a link to the Reuters snappers blog on Friday amongst other quality links.

  6. Very good interview, great to see the view from a programmers eye being so well taken. Believe it or not we have some creativity in us.

  7. A great interview! Thank you. I’ve been following what Adrian Holovaty has done with EveryBlock.com and how the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern is encouraging programmers to get their Masters degree in Journalism. The Big Picture is a great example of a what a programmer can do in journalism.

  8. Not so sure what Alan is doing is, as he says, copy-able. His aesthetic is what is making bigpicture.com so right (I too loved Life and National Geographic as a kid – how could you not?!). Others can follow, but we know who was first. Thank you Andy, and Alan, for sharing such a great conversation.

  9. And the success of this blog goes to prove that the world does NOT NEED FLASH!!

    Almost all the photo news is presented in over engineered Flash sites that frankly, piss me off.

    Well done Alan Taylor, I hope you get the recognition you deserve.

  10. I am ashamed to say, unlike others here, that I was not immediately taken with The Big Picture

    As a Photographer I love the idea of images speaking for themselves, but my interest in typography and legibility means The Big Picture leaves me disappointed.

    I Applaud the idea of Large Images and I Applaud the creators of those images, but I find the column widths on sites like Waxy and Daring Fireball far superior for comprehension than those on The Big Picture.

    (As Matt R stated above The Big Picture does look great on the iPhone, which for me could be due to the use of less than 80 characters line width in Mobile Safari).

    Thankfully The Big Picture, With a column width on my desktop browser in excess of 120 characters, has little to say that the images don’t say for themselves. I just hope all those Photographers are receiving their cheques.

  11. Must say I am enamored by the Big Picture – you could link to it every time. Bit of a gushing interview though.

  12. Just reading the background on this now a year after this column was written.

    My take is that the Big Picture is the single most important website on the web, it visualises a lot of stories that occur and are even ongoing. It’s like reading a good Tom Clancy novel it gets into your head (well mine at least). I am a complete amateur photographer and I marvel at the images produced. Hope the photo editors are not skimping on paying the camera guys.

    Like Drudge it is a site I visit on a frequent basis.

  13. Great concept and execution. Especially appreciative as a former Boston Globe picture editor, where it was a constant battle to get images large in the newspaper. Wish I’d thought of it! Congratulations on it’s success-

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