How a college mapping project on a Jane Austen novel led Ella Koeze ’15 to graphic design at the New York Times

News & Spotlights | September 5, 2023
Ella Koeze ’15

As a graphics editor for the New York Times, Ella Koeze ’15 specializes in helping readers visualize complex concepts in order to better understand them, from how a federal law on nonstop flights will affect tourism to education debt in the United States.

Mapping connections among seemingly disparate entities has been a through line in the alumna’s career, too.

Classes in UNC Geography introduced Ella to data visualization through GIS (geographic information system) mapping. As a double major in English and geography, she decided to combine her interests for her senior honors thesis in digital humanities.

She created a website that maps the geography depicted in Jane Austen’s novel, Persuasion, and the movement of the book’s characters within that cartographic space.

“Austen is very precise about location in the book, and being able to see all the places she refers to tells us a lot about England at the time it was written,” Ella said over a bowl of noodles in New York City this spring after the 2023 Regional Event for alumni and scholars.

Using the Lovelace Fund for Discovery, Ella participated in a coding and database bootcamp facilitated by the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

The skills gained at the bootcamp and in visual communications and graphic design courses in Hussman complemented the GIS mapping skills she learned in her geography classes. But, would an unusual combination of skills and experiences be valued in the job market? As a senior anticipating graduation, Ella wasn’t sure.

Is this ‘good enough’?

“It all worked together, but at the time, I was asking myself, ‘Am I good enough? Is what I’m doing enough to be successful?’ I wasn’t sure if all the pieces I’d cobbled together would work,” she said.

The answer came during an internship at FiveThirtyEight, a data-driven news organization based in New York City. The internship resulted in a job offer as a visual journalist. (The New York Times once owned FiveThirtyEight until ESPN acquired the company in 2013.)

While at FiveThirtyEight, she created visualizations on topics as disparate as mortality rates by state, where in the country women win seats in state legislatures, and dynamic NBA player rankings based on a range of statistical metrics.

Comfortable juggling multiple projects simultaneously, the alumna earned an online master’s from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in mapping while working full-time at FiveThirtyEight.

Joining the Times

After more than four years working with data and evidence at FiveThirtyEight, in March 2020 she joined the New York Times. Like the beats of many reporters, her business beat was immediately subsumed into the monolithic “COVID-19 beat.” Her first project was to track the economic repercussions of the crisis.

During the pandemic, she’s looked at everything from how the virus changed Americans’ use their free time to what Elon Musk tweets about.

In the ever-changing world of web development and visual journalism, Ella said she’s constantly learning how to adapt her skills to new tools, emerging story forms, and evolving reader preferences.

“When I started, it wasn’t so common to see as many scroll-based interactive experiences, and now it’s everywhere you look,” she said. “So, some of the change is tech driven.”

Building from scratch

Not all technological advancements are welcome in journalism, however. The nature of journalistic endeavors and the news values of clarity and accuracy raise important questions about AI-powered software. Journalists require “complete control over editorial decisions,” she said, making pug-and-lay options impractical.

“Every new project, every new story is sort of starting from ground zero and asking myself, ‘What do I want to accomplish here, and do I already know how to do it?’” the graphics designer said. “Increasingly in my career, the answer is ‘yes,’ but many times the answer is ‘not really, but I could figure it out.’”

Looking ahead, Ella said she’s interested in doing more traditional reporting, as well as possibly exploring more in the digital humanities. Earlier that week, she’d shadowed a real estate reporter in Charlotte for a story about the city’s housing market.

The alumna encouraged current scholars not to be daunted by a lack of experience. For employers, a candidate’s willingness to figure something out is often more valuable than knowing the answer right away, she said.

“It’s not like you have all the knowledge and then you apply it; it’s happening at the same time, every day,” Ella said. “That will make you better when you’re hired, and then you’re going to have examples of what you’re capable of doing.”