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American Journalism Review
Graphics Evolution  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   April/May 2004

Graphics Evolution   

By creating USA Today’s weather map, a news art revolutionary set the tone for modern design.

By Natalie Pompilio
Natalie Pompilio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.     

In the beginning, there was black and white, and a two-column weather map, with tiny print, jammed onto the bottom of a page.

Then lo, it came to pass that George Rorick and USA Today did away with all that. They brought in color and graphics and words large enough to read without a magnifying glass. They spread the map over a full page, included explanations of why things happened, and created what remains one of the newspaper's most popular features. And it was good.

Mention Rorick's name to most people in the graphics and design game and they'll say that he is the father of the modern weather map. But during his more-than-40-year career, Rorick also revolutionized the way informational graphics are used, leaving his mark at Knight Ridder and in newsrooms from Detroit to St. Petersburg.

But most know him for the weather map--Rorick, 62, is used to that.

"It's kinda stuck with me--'You're the guy who did the weather,' " Rorick says. "People would come up to me and ask for my autograph."

Rorick recently retired from the visual journalism faculty at the Poynter Institute because of failing eyesight. But his influence continues. As Richard Curtis, managing editor of graphics and photography for USA Today, wrote in an online tribute: "George, your shadow hovers over all of us and your fingerprints will be forever visible on all newspapers."

Rorick started in newspapers at 18, first in the mailroom and then drawing ads for a small paper in Benton Harbor, Michigan, the Herald-Palladium. He wanted to be an illustrator, another Norman Rockwell. Then he got the news bug.

"I was fascinated with the newsroom and I started to spend more and more time there," he says. "If I could do it all over again, I would start as a writer."

From there he went to the Denver Post, where he rose to become art director. After a few years, he returned to his home state of Michigan and the Lansing State Journal. That's where he was working in 1980, when he was asked to be part of something new called USA Today.

He stumbled into doing the weather page. At a meeting, Gannett boss Allen H. Neuharth tossed out a bunch of ideas and asked who wanted to work on each. Rorick raised his hand when Neuharth asked who would be interested "in doing something with the weather," Rorick says. "Not because I had a real passion for weather but being a visual person, it was having a full page to work with in full color."

Rorick engineered the layout, helped "very, very scientifically [pick] which cities appeared on the map," and created the explainer, the daily graphic that breaks down weather occurrences. The page was an instant hit with readers.

"If that page has a single father, it's him," says USA Today's Curtis. "What a lot of people don't understand is he did the pages manually. There were no computers in those days. He's a master draftsman and artist."

Rorick believes in "good visual journalism, not just decorative images." He wanted graphics that told stories, that explained things. He took that philosophy to the Detroit News.

"George showed me that being a graphic artist at a newspaper didn't mean cranking out locator maps. His ambition was to create a journalistically driven art department, something that was not really done at the time," says Jeff Goertzen, a senior artist at the St. Petersburg Times who worked with Rorick in Detroit and calls that time "the defining moment of my career."

"We were renegades, graphic renegades. He paved the way for what graphics are today."

Rorick taught his staff the importance of getting information firsthand. Goertzen recalls once getting a 2 a.m. wake-up call so he could go to the scene of a hostage crisis. "We were being treated like photographers would with a breaking story," he says.

Rorick could also persuade people who weren't familiar with the graphics revolution to experiment, says Robert H. Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University and a former Detroit News editor and publisher.

"He had such a nice manner that even though these editors were in a position of doing something they weren't used to doing--and in some cases I thought weren't comfortable doing--he won a lot of converts over time," Giles says.

From Detroit, Rorick went to Knight Ridder in Washington to develop the company's graphics service. Ron Coddington, now a senior designer at USA Today, first heard Rorick's name in 1987, when Rorick, then with Knight Ridder Graphics Network, called to ask about a graphic he'd done for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. When Coddington hung up the phone, a colleague asked who it was and he told him.

"He was like, 'Oh my God. He's a graphics god,' " Coddington recalls.

Coddington went to work for Rorick, who then launched Knight Ridder's Faces in the News caricature service, the KRT European Graphics Service and News in Motion. Says Coddington, "George is unique because he's not only someone who is a visionary but he's also someone who can make things happen. George is someone who goes all the way."

In retirement Rorick has the usual plans: visit his three children and two grandchildren in Michigan, travel more, relax more. But he also wants to write a book for visual journalists to help them become better reporters and editors. And he's thinking of starting a business that creates graphics for cable television networks--though he'd need help with the visuals as his eyes weaken from macular degeneration.

Says Goertzen, "He can lose his sight, but he can't lose his vision. He's a visionary, one way or another."

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