Going bold with ‘comics journalism’: The Reader, Creative Loafing, and U of Chicago research magazine Capital Ideas
[July 13, 2014] The work of three current and former clients reinforces the potential for visual journalism to tell complex stories in eye-grabbing ways – the Chicago Reader and Atlanta’s Creative Loafing, both of which I redesigned several years ago, and Capital Ideas magazine, which I work with currently and which covers economics research at the U of Chicago.
Two of them this weekend snagged top national honors for this work. More than just eye candy or award bait, these approaches work for these publications for very specific reasons, which I put forth below. They reinforce my career-long mantra that dynamic publications need to present news in ways that transcend “just text.”
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First, congrats to the Chicago Reader, which won a number of awards this weekend from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. Among the awards for design or related work: The paper took first in the unusual category “Outside-the-Box: Innovation / Format Buster,” for “How to Survive a Shooting,” by Chicago reporter Darryl Holliday and illustrator Erik Rodriguez (aka The Illustrated Press).
Told in brief vignettes via graphic novel form, the report sheds light on the death of Marissa Stingley, 19, through the struggle of her mother Nortasha to accept the tragedy and keep living. Published in November 2013, the story is more timely than ever eight months later, as Chicago’s gang warfare epidemic grows, sadly, in the media spotlight.
Why the graphic approach works here: The Reader, and the Chicago media in general, write a lot about gang killings in the city (and have for years). By taking the graphic approach, and telling the story from the angle of the mother’s struggle to accept and survive, the paper offers an opportunity to “wake up” and engage readers who otherwise might gloss over yet another account of a South Side killing.
Obviously, a visual approach like this also has the potential to grab time-starved readers (and aren’t we all?) and younger readers, even though they may not be the paper’s usual target audience.
READ MORE: More “comics journalism” by Darryl Holliday and Erik Rodriguez — aka the Illustrated Press — at their website. Complete list of AAN winners. Check out another Reader first-place, for an illustration by Jason Wyatt Frederick, for the music cover shown here. Kudos to Reader Editor Mara Shalhoup, Creative Director Paul John Higgins and staff for these and a number of other awards. More on my earlier redesign work at the Chicago Reader.
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Next up, congratulations to Creative Loafing in Atlanta, receiving first place in the AAN category “Outside-the-Box: Special Section, circulation 50,000 and over” for an edition partly presented in graphic novel form. The issue, which you can read here in PDF form posted at the AAN site, was also notable in that the paper turned the reins over to a guest editor, Congressman John Lewis, D-Atlanta, and the topic, “The Future of Nonviolence.” CL Editors Debbie Michaud and Wyatt Williams introduced the special issue as follows:
“There are many reasons to admire Lewis: because his work in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Civil Rights Movement made our country a better place; because he’s the last living speaker from the 1963 March on Washington; because at 73 years old, he continues to fight for justice and peace in the House of Representatives; because his commitment to nonviolence has been unwavering throughout his lifetime. Lewis makes us proud to live in Atlanta. Like the Auburn Avenue mural of the congressman puts it, Lewis is a hero.”
“Beyond our admiration for Lewis, we learned that March: Book One, the first volume of Lewis’ graphic novel memoir co-authored with his staffer Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell, would be published on Aug. 13, 2013. The timing was right and Lewis agreed. Through coordination with Aydin, Lewis has guided us to this issue focused on the future of nonviolence.”
Why the graphic approach works here: The issue opened by grabbing readers with a special cover illustration and a number of pages excerpted from the book, sampled here (click to enlarge, or link to the PDF). The book’s impending release was a news angle, as was Lewis’ scheduled keynote at the Atlanta book festival the next week, and the theme of advocacy for justice fits well with the alt weekly’s mission. It’s also a great example of what I’ve always called a “show-me” type of story – don’t just tell me that the book was being published, or that Lewis’ historic life was being told in illustrated form, or reference it in a few paragraphs of text … show me in the pages of your publication, and engage me as a reader with visual habits. And, as with the Reader example shown above, telling an oft-told story in a visually dynamic and different way offers a new and potentially greater chance to grab audiences that may be turned off to printed news and features in text-only form.
READ MORE: Kudos to Creative Loafing for also snagging an AAN first place for editorial layout, for a visually inviting package on the Atlanta Beer Crawl that deftly combines hand-lettered typography, photos, text and info graphics. More on my earlier redesign work at Creative Loafing.
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Third, but not least: Very different types of stories are being told in graphic form by current client Capital Ideas magazine, the journal of economics research and ideas at the University of Chicago’s renowned Booth School of Business. (I worked on a redesign for the magazine in early 2013 and, starting with the summer 2013 launch issue, have provided quarterly direction on graphics, photos, illustration and design for each live issue.)
The challenge, and fun, of working with Capital Ideas is that the information presented – reportage on current research from the school in the area of world economics and finance – poses a risk of becoming overly dense or academic, but by extension, opportunities to break away from the mundane. One or two stories that may be a bit text heavy, even spruced up with data-driven infographics, may be fine … but 60 pages of a magazine filled with them could threaten to overwhelm the reader. If it looks like homework, it’s no fun to read.
Editor-in-Chief Hal Weitzman and Editor Emily Lambert worked hard on our redesign to explore new formats that tell stories in more visually robust ways (while making the content more journalistically robust), and have pushed even further in the year since relaunch. Hence, Weitzman’s assignment for the Spring 2014 issue for the graphic story shown above, by contributing illustrator “Boggy.” The four-page layout (two 2-page spreads) chronicles a debate between Chicago Booth Professors John Cochrane and Doug Diamond over the question, “what if we lived in a world without banks?” While a serious topic lies beneath, the text and visuals are whimsical, fun, and engaging.
Below is the 4-pager for the current issue (Summer 2014), illustrating a similar debate on the question, “Are we saving too much for retirement?”:
Why the graphic approach works here: My focus with tabloid and magazine design always has been the need to “orchestrate” the rhythm of pages, varying the flow of more routine, perhaps text heavy pages with those that pack visual punch. Capital Ideas starts with housekeeping kinds of content (editors’ column, letters, etc.), proceeds into brief stories, anchors the middle with an 8-12 page cover story with its own visual tone, then a series of Features stories, punctuated with the comic reports shown here, before concluding with Footnotes stories.
About 3/4 of the way into their reading experience, readers get a colorful surprise, and a little visual (and conversational) levity. We believe the comic approach – along with numerous photos, illustrations, and data-driven graphics spread throughout the magazine – are all part of a visually rich and diverse reading experience, designed to keep subscribers engaged and moving from front to back.
READ MORE: See a sampling of prototypes and more live pages from my work with Capital Ideas here.
Related or semi-related:
- The Washington Post‘s first-ever fully illustrated interview, with filmmaker Richard Linklater. And here’s Part 2.
- Several dozen posts with case studies and advice about alternative newsweekly design and editing from this blog.
- More than 40 posts with case studies and advice about magazine design and editing from this blog.
- Follow Ron Reason Consulting on Twitter.
- Follow Ron Reason Consulting on Facebook.