As journalists increasingly use visuals to tell stories, one outlet has made them a fixture of its coverage. Kontinentalist, a website that focuses on explainers about news and cultural trends across Asia, has produced more than 100 visual stories over the past five years. The content—deeply reported topics spanning culture, history and current news—relies heavily on data-driven charts, maps, infographics and illustrations to guide readers as they scroll or click through the text—a technique known as “scrollytelling.”
In the following interview, Kontinentalist co-founder Loh Pei Ying and editorial lead Nabilah Said offer their thoughts on how journalists use visuals and the importance of this brand of storytelling. They also offer insights about the research and creative processes that make their site successful. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Evelina Judeikyte: What’s the story behind Kontinentalist? How did it come to be?
Loh Pei Ying: Kontinentalist launched in 2018 with a goal of providing information about the latest infrastructural or political developments in Asia to keep citizens informed of what’s happening around them. Our first project was an explainer of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, but our initial attempt fell flat: it felt like a heavy research paper and was too boring for a general audience. So we explored different ways to make this information more engaging and insightful. That is when we stumbled upon data storytelling as a practice and tried our hand at it. In our piece, we used a map as a storytelling device, and utilised scrollytelling to take our readers through several heavy datasets, but focused their attention on what mattered.
Since then, we’ve been hooked on it, and we’ve published over 100 stories to date, covering all sorts of topics concerning Asia. Our main focus is to put Asia at the forefront of global conversations and to keep access to data and information as easy as possible.
Nabilah Said: I joined Kontinentalist last year. Before this, I was a journalist and an editor of an arts publication, so I was very used to writing features, interviews, and opinion pieces that weren’t explicitly data-driven. The idea of using data to back-up whatever story you were telling, to really make data more impactful to an average reader intrigued me.
I was also attracted to the human-centred approach to Kontinentalist’s stories, like one story on the sarong which elucidated both the beauty and specificity of the fabric across various Southeast Asian countries, as well as its role in gender politics and anti-colonial resistance. It exposed me to the many beautiful ways of telling data stories.
Evelina Judeikyte: What kind of projects do you work on most often?
Loh Pei Ying: For me, I think my educational background plays a huge role in the type of stories that I write. Because I studied history at university, I often cover the heritage and historical pieces. I strongly believe that a lot of things in society today can be explained with a bit of history, such as how our systems function, how racial dynamics work, how these things may be inherited from a colonial past or a pre-colonial past. It is important to explain the context and nuance of these developments. For example, some stories I have worked on are about historical trade routes and their impact on present ones, like in our “Understanding the Belt and Road” story. Or how historical geopolitics have an impact on current geopolitics, especially in mainland Southeast Asia concerning infrastructural developments.
Recently, I have also been working on a story about historical rubber trade and the industry that supported it in historic Malaya (currently modern Singapore and Malaysia). Essentially, how this cash crop transformed society and also influenced a lot of our racial relationships and dynamics in the country.
Nabilah Said: As an editor, I’m necessarily more of a generalist. But when it comes to my own taste of consuming and writing stories, I gravitate towards the ones that have more of a human interest or cultural angle, or have a quirky or unusual streak to them. In September, I helped to work on a microstory on Instagram about mystical spaces in Asia. This was really interesting because while there’s a lot of both academic and esoteric writing about it, there’s not that much data available when it comes to what counts as a “mystical space” in Asia. How would you quantify the unquantifiable and define the undefinable? We had to categorise things in a way that hasn’t really been categorised before, such as by religion and type of space. That was quite fun. And also quite telling, about where the gaps are when it comes to the study of cultural knowledge in Asia. So there’s an opportunity there for us to do more.
Evelina Judeikyte: Who chooses the topics?
Nabilah Said: We have a very diverse team and anyone can pitch stories—whether you’re a writer, designer, developer, community manager, intern, etc—which I really like because it’s very different from a conventional newsroom-type of operation. We work about six months in advance where everyone who wants to can pitch story ideas. These can be stories that we want to explore in the form of a longform story or a microstory for Instagram. And then we all vote on which stories we want to see covered and what we want to work on. We’re very democratic in that way.
We also do collaborations with partners, where often they come with a dataset or topic that they feel needs more awareness, and we work together to find the best way of presenting that story. Of course, as and when topics which are more timely crop up, we will also get very excited about those. Our editorial calendar gets packed very, very quickly.
Evelina Judeikyte: What’s your method for finding a story angle?
Loh Pei Ying: Our editorial strategy defines a lot of the story angles that we pursue. The first category of stories that we focus on is what we call “Asia, Debunked,” where we try to correct misconceptions that we think people might have about Asia, certain cultures or trends, and prove them wrong with data.
Second, is “Asian societies”—or content that we think will surprise people about Asian cultures or provide a fresh perspective on a very sort of well-known culture or trend. We use data to delight, uncover, or investigate how and why something is the way it is. For example, we did a collaboration with The Pudding studying the evolution of K-pop groups. K-pop is a genre of music that has historically been sometimes looked down upon as manufactured music. But being able to track its evolution and its trends allows us to understand that it’s also beautiful and recognised as a genre on its own. We also celebrate our favourite Asian foods, like instant noodles.
We also have a lot of conversations around climate change and the environment. This goes into the third category, “Future Asia”, where we use data to understand how these developments will affect our future, what we have to keep an eye on, or what we can lend our attention or our action to.
Lastly, we have a bracket on “Singapore Specials”, which is just really a love letter to Singapore’s history, culture, and practices, and from our desire to use data to spotlight certain important issues and trends.
Nabilah Said: The trained journalist in me usually thinks of it as—don’t go in with an angle, talk to people or do your research and keep yourself open to what the angle will eventually be. It usually rises to the top. I do like that organic approach. One thing I’ve learned from being at Kontinentalist is to begin with a research question in mind. So like, not coming in already fixated with an angle, but still having something to guide you when you’re starting.
I recall discussing a microstory about the representation of women writers in Southeast Asian literature with our colleague Bianchi. We generally knew that there was a problem of underrepresentation, but then I started being curious about who wins writing awards—would the data support our suspicions? In this case, we were sadly proven right, but the data showed a starker picture than we had even suspected. It also brought us deeper down the rabbit hole, because we started looking at who judges these awards (mostly men, as you would suspect). So in this case, starting with the data as a point of curiosity gave us ideas about how to tell the story.
Evelina Judeikyte: How do you define the plot, or the narrative arc of the story? Do you do it at the initial stages or later in the design process?
Loh Pei Ying: We usually have a gist of an idea before we begin to even flesh out a story. Our writers first start with a central question, and also three key sources that they are referring to to answer this question, including data sources. This usually forms a pretty good backbone for us.
The research and investigative process usually comes first before we begin to even plot out anything. We have also changed our workflow to bring in our developers and our designers early into the story creation process so that they can also add their thoughts, and that’s where we’ll decide what sort of interactions will go on to the page. We also decide here on the type of visual or emotional impact we’ll like to make as the reader goes through a piece.
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For our writing, we usually follow a pretty traditional narrative arc, and we don’t switch things up too often, although I guess we should. We tend to start with laying out what the issue is, followed by the whataboutisms of this topic. If there’s a large dataset, then we break it down frame by frame, before usually leaving our readers with a call-to-action for what they can do to participate in this issue. We iterate throughout this process.
Nabilah Said: I do think that the team is open to new ways of storytelling. It depends on the story. We did a story on Southeast Asian sci-fi, where the story was told in a different narrative style from our usual where the reader was referred to in second-person, like they’re a player in a narrative-based game. The story was written as if you were being brought through a journey through time and space, encountering characters or tropes or icons from the various sci-fi scenes of the region. That was very exciting because the illustrations and visualisations had to be very cohesive to the story and not break the immersion. The plot had to be very strong and carry the reader through from start to finish, and the entire team never lost sight of that.
Evelina Judeikyte: How do you decide between visualisations and illustrations?
Loh Pei Ying: I don’t think we have a fixed rule of how we distinguish what goes into a visualisation or illustrations, but we are purposeful with both. Most of the team uses Flourish. It’s a low- to no-code tool that most of us have access to. It is easily editable and also responsive for different screens, and can be embedded onto our articles.
The tricky part comes to illustrations, where we have a very rigorous editorial, illustration guideline. We do not illustrate just to break up visual monotony but also to delight, and add an emotional impact to our readers. Our illustrations are very purposeful in being able to communicate the emotional lightness or heaviness of a story. For example, in our story on sexual violence in Singapore, we converted a treemap visualisation into an illustrated one to visualise not just the data, but the spaces in which sexual assault survivors see harm or find danger. We also use illustrations in instances where we find traditional visualisation might be limiting. For example, in the story that we did on gem mining, we decided to use illustrated infographics because we wanted to bring that visual connection to gems, and remind people that these vibrant stones also have a relatively dark story to them.
Nabilah Said: For me it’s more about the different tools at your disposal to tell the story. I feel even using text is a choice. We tend to think primarily in text or maybe the editorial team does. But actually, we can also afford to cut down on text and focus more on other ways of communication. Especially because we’re also talking about Asian topics, and some things may not be best conveyed in text, especially texts in English, which is the language of our publication.
And sometimes what determines our choice is capacity. Illustration, for example, tends to be quite labour-intensive. We also ask this question when it comes to our more “bespoke” stories that require coding from scratch. So the decision is not a creative one but something much more practical and more about our team.
Evelina Judeikyte: Can you share one tip on data storytelling that you wish you were aware of when you first started?
Nabilah Said: Mine is pretty basic, but I’m dealing with it right now. I think it’s very tempting to look at data and be fixated on things like cleaning it and processing it—almost working on it like a machine—and finding a nice, pretty chart to visualise it, but be completely unprecise about how it supports the story you’re telling. Like either thinking mainly in aesthetic terms, or having a vague idea that “a chart goes here!”. Even though that sounds really basic, I find myself frequently trapped in this cycle of, “ok, I’m cleaning a lot of data. I’m doing a lot of things… wait what am I doing?” That’s something painful that I am learning, especially after hours of Excel work.
Loh Pei Ying: It is a similar one for me. I look back to some of my older stories and I cringe a little sometimes. I think that they are too content heavy. Even now, I still struggle, and pack too much into a story. I wish that I knew early on that curation is very important, being very purposeful with your visualisations is incredibly important.
Like Nabilah said, it is not about creating the most visually appealing data visualisation, but more of, how can you get your message across the most effectively? It’s not just the ease of understanding your visualisation, but also, does this visualisation do justice to the topic? Does it convey the emotional message that you want to impart, or highlight the messages you want your readers to take away with? I think those things are important in practising data storytelling.
A version of this interview first appeared in The Plot newsletter on Feb. 2.