Politico’s Creative Director on Using Photography to Deliver Political News

July 30, 2018

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© The Voorhes/Layout by Politico

Cover by The Voorhes. Politico often uses conceptual images for its themed covers. © The Voorhes/Layout by Politico

Janet Michaud, the creative director for Politico, has for more than 20 years been an art director and design director at news publications including The Boston Globe, TIME and The Washington Post. In 2013, she joined Politico, the website devoted to politics and policy, as it was preparing to launch its print magazine. She became its creative director of visual enterprise in 2015. That year, the magazine won the American Society of Magazine Editor’s award for Feature Photography. Michaud has also won awards from the Society of Publication Designers, the Society of News Design, American Illustration, Society of Illustrators, Communication Arts and Print magazine. Michaud recently talked to PDN about Politico magazine’s design and use of photography, and about the importance of design in delivering news both online and in print.

PDN: What are your responsibilities at Politico, and how have they evolved since you began working there?J.M.: I lead the visuals team in the newsroom and am the creative director for the magazine. The visuals team is [comprised of] nine visual journalists who work on stories for Politico’s main and magazine sites, as well as the newspaper and the print magazine. On the team are two designers working on the newspaper (one of whom splits her time doing design for social); an art director and photo editor working on the magazine and some news projects; a director of photography/shooter; a full-time shooter; a graphics reporter; an editorial cartoonist; and me.

I came here from The Washington Post in 2013 to help launch the magazine. Politico was known for breaking news and being non-partisan and being kind of scrappy in the best sense. I wanted the visual identity to relate to that sensibility, but in a way that steps back and augments the breaking news and the accountability journalism. The way I framed it was that I wanted it to be like the ESPN of politics: bold, smart, rigorous and strategic in how we were looking at politics and policy. I wanted the visuals, like the writing, to signal the magazine’s high ambitions and to be distinctive.

Wrapped into that was a hope that we would create a new visual language for politics, or at least a fresh way of visualizing them.

PDN: That’s ambitious.
J.M.: It was idealistic. To bring that down to earth, I’d say we made it our mission to avoid the clichés of politics, the donkeys and elephants, the capitol dome and the flags— unless we were going to turn the clichés on their heads. I also wanted our approach to storytelling to surprise and delight the readers, as well as make them pause and think. I wanted it to feel intimate, as the writing in the magazine does, as it brings readers under the hood of Washington, or into the homes of Congressmen or into the rooms of the White House, or on the road with cabinet members. That’s a challenge of access, but it’s definitely something we try to do.

PDN: How does that mission influence the photography you use?
J.M.: If the magazine’s mission is high-impact journalism, then my hope is that the approach to the photography is the same, and it demands the reader’s attention across all platforms.

This idea of wanting to surprise and delight the reader: One of the ways we do that is by letting the photographer’s voice come through. That means working with a photographer who has a clear voice, like Mark Peterson. M. Scott Mahaskey, who is director of photography and a shooter on our staff, for example, did a photo story about a Trump town. He grew up in Ottumwa, Iowa, and did a story on the stark contrast between the bleak prospects of this post-industrial town and the brash billionaire politician they love. His story had an interesting point of view.

[We also publish] distinctive portraiture. We work with Ben Baker a lot, we’ve worked with Jesse Dittmar, and people who have a gift for capturing a sense of place like Erika Larsen. In his story about bitcoin mining, Patrick Cavan Brown did a great job of capturing a sense of place in a small Washington town.

We also do stuff that’s more conceptual. For example, The Voorhes have shot a couple of covers. We tend to do a lot of themed covers, and they tend to lead to a lot of conceptual images.

We also try to reach our goals by telling stories in a different way and using photography in different ways. We’ll do stories that are driven by the photographs, and we’ll do photo essays that expand on the stories we publish.

© Ben Baker/Layout by <i>Politico</i>.

Ben Baker photographed journalist Dan Rather for the media issue. © Ben Baker/Layout by Politico.

PDN: What are some examples of photo-driven stories or photo essays?
J.M.: Stephen Voss did a great story on the first 100 days of Trump’s Washington. He documented the city’s uneasy relationship with its newest high-profile resident. It was a personal project Stephen had been working on and we commissioned him to build it out. For the story on bitcoin mining, we framed that around case studies of some of the bitcoin miners, and asked Patrick to also capture a sense of place. We [created] a separate photo essay about a miner and detailed the scale of the miners’ operations. Mark Peterson shoots our “What Works” series, which we started in 2014 and just relaunched last month. Every month, he goes to a different city and looks at an innovation happening there. We’ve always expanded the main story by attaching a related photo essay that focuses on a person or element of the story.

PDN: You left your job at The Washington Post to work on the start-up of a new print magazine in 2013. Do you have a lot of chutzpah?
J.M.: You mean, What was I thinking? The year 2013 didn’t seem like a particularly auspicious time to launch a magazine. My friends and family would say I have a lot of chutzpah. I don’t frame it that way myself, but if I look back on my career, I’ve definitely taken risks.

At The Boston Globe, I created the position of sports designer. I looked at sports in a way they hadn’t before. When I became special projects art director, I’d say that was my pivot, where I started to really understand the relationship between photography and design and the importance of how they together tell a story.

Then I went to TIME for seven years. I worked on every section, had the privilege to work directly with James Nachtwey on a few things, and redesigned the front and back of the book. [At] The Washington Post, I created a new position of features design director, and we brought together 15 art directors from around the newsroom and formed what we called the design desk. I later became the design director overseeing news, features and the magazine. I was running a staff of 30 art directors and designers.

When I came here, I was very excited about the opportunity. I’d always dreamt of starting a magazine, but never thought I’d get the opportunity. I think it’s interesting to push the role design plays in telling the news. I would say it was a pretty calculated risk in the sense that the founding editor was Susan Glasser. She’s a pretty amazing journalist, and I was excited about the opportunity to learn and work with her. Another thing that was attractive about Politico was that it was very niche in its focus on politics and policy. I was coming from places that covered general news. And being focused seemed smart to me in 2013.

PDN: It sounds like your jobs have often involved leading organizational changes as well as design changes. Do you have ideas about how to support good design?
J.M.: The Post was the first place where I led a team. I like to help places better understand the power of design. It’s such a powerful communicator and is integral to the storytelling.

How do we bring together graphics, photography and illustration to communicate a brand identity, so you know the brand on any platform at any time?

PDN: That’s challenging.
J.M.: It is really hard, given the flood of news and information and the number of platforms that news is being delivered on. It highlights how important the consistency of a brand’s voice is—whether that voice is through photography, or illustration, or how Twitter promos are written, or the approach to Instagram stories. The hope is that you’re creating a visual voice and overall tone that are strong enough to communicate the brand’s journalism as it travels across platforms.

PDN: Are you relying on a stable of contributing photographers, or looking for new talent?
J.M.: Both. Ben [Baker] and Mark [Peterson] are photographers I’ve worked with from the beginning. Patrick Cavan Brown has been a new voice we’ve recently worked with. We recently worked with Lexey Swall, whose work I really like and I would like to build that relationship. Susana Raab is someone I’d love to get in the magazine more.

PDN: Have you done other notable photo assignments recently?
J.M.: Spencer Lowell just did a robots photo essay for us. His images really made the robots feel like people, which was the point of the story—how close they are to taking over our jobs. Szymon Barylski shot in refugee camps for the Rohingya in Bangladesh, for a story about what the Obama administration may have missed in its policy towards Myanmar.

PDN: Anything you wish photographers understood better about Politico, or about your needs?
J.M.: You can look at politics from a lot of different angles and a good idea can come from anywhere. I love the collaboration I have with photographers and illustrators. It’s one of my favorite parts of the job. I really value those relationships and hope to build new ones.

Janet Michaud
Creative Director
1000 Wilson Blvd, 8th Floor
Arlington, VA, 22209

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