It's not often I come across a piece of data journalism that pleases me so much. Here it is, the "Happy 700" article by Washington Post is amazing.
When data journalism and dataviz are done right, the designers have made good decisions. Here are some of the key elements that make this article work:
The topic is timely but timeliness heightens both the demand and supply of articles, which means only the unique and relevant pieces get the readers' attention.
The tone is light-hearted. It's a fun read. A little bit informative - when they describe the towns that few have heard of. The notion is slightly silly but the reader won't care.
It's always a challenge to make data come alive, and these authors succeeded. Most of the data work involves finding, collecting and processing the data. There isn't any sophisticated analysis. But a powerful demonstration that complex analysis is not always necessary.
The structure of the data is three criteria (elevation, population, and terrain) by cities. A typical way of showing such data might be an annotated table, or a Bumps-type chart, grouped columns, and so on. All these formats try to stuff the entire dataset onto one chart. The designers chose to highlight one variable at a time, cumulatively, on three separate maps. This presentation fits perfectly with the flow of the writing.
The execution involves some smart choices. I am a big fan of legend/axis labels that are informative, for example, note that the legend doesn't say "Elevation in Meters":
The color scheme across all three maps shows a keen awareness of background/foreground concerns.