Digital Publishing: Visual Storytelling Does More Than Entertain
Posted: 2/12/2013  |  By: Rob Tornoe
Susie Cagle, a reporter for environmental news website grist.org, spent three days putting hundreds of miles on her car to report on California’s Salton Sea, a once-popular recreational destination that has transformed into an environmentally devastated wasteland of massive fish and bird die-offs.

Cagle is a journalist, but instead of writing a 5,000-word piece, she leaned on her cartoonist skills to tell the story using a blossoming medium known as comics journalism. Her story was one of a handful of initial offerings available in the first issue of Symbolia, a new iPad magazine taking a unique approach to journalism — telling stories exclusively through the use of sequential art.

“There’s an immersive element to comics that makes it easy for a reader to identify with the subject at hand,” said Erin Polgreen, founding editor and publisher of Symbolia. “When you simplify an image and render it to its essentials, you make it a lot easier for people to draw parallels to their own lives and experiences.”

Comics journalism is nothing new. Comics book artists such as Joe Sacco, Ted Rall, Joe Kubert, and others have been telling nonfiction stories using sequential art for years.

But with the saturation of online news, and editors’ growing interest in both user experience and attracting younger audiences, comics journalism has slowly been making its way to traditional news outlets and is currently enjoying a renaissance in both creative energy and popularity. Symbolia has embraced the Web from the start, publishing stories that mix audio, visual, and interactive elements to create a unique form of storytelling.

Polgreen, whose previous experience was helping companies develop new content strategies, got her “I could do this” moment as she read an issue of Wonder Woman on her first iPad. So with a $20,000 grant from the International Women’s Media Fund, and $14,000 from Chicago-based Robert McCormick Foundation and J-Lab, she debuted Symbolia at last year’s SXSW Interactive.

Symbolia is currently available on the iPad and in PDF, and Polgreen plans to publish six issues per year for $2.99 per issue, or $11.99 for an annual subscription. Polgreen estimates that Symbolia will need 3,000 paid subscribers to sustain the magazine and pay contributors and fact checkers. A little over a month after launching, the magazine is closing in on 500 subscribers.

“We’re almost a third of the way to our six-month goal,” Polgreen said. “I’d love to be at 1,500 subscribers in six months, but we’re doing great.”

Symbolia’s conversion rate of securing subscribers has been impressive. The first issue is free, and based on that issue users can decide to subscribe for the year. According to Polgreen, digital news sites consider a 5 percent conversion rate to be a good mark of success. Symbolia’s conversion rate is at 12.7 percent on the iPad, and she hopes to continue this success when she rolls out versions for Android and Kindle.

In addition to subscription revenue, Polgreen expects to offer advertising and sponsorship options as Symbolia’s readership grows. Drawing on her background as a consultant, she’s also looking at Symbolia as a means of proving unique content services that other media organizations can utilize, especially those that may be interested in doing comics journalism on their own site.

The economics of comics journalism can be difficult for publishers — producing high-quality illustrated stories can not only be expensive, it adds a new wrinkle in the editorial flow, where fast deadlines and quick turnaround times are already standard issue.

Grist executive editor Scott Rosenberg sidestepped the cost issue and made waves by simply putting Susie Cagle on staff as someone who possesses the skills of both a reporter and a cartoonist, something other organizations have been reluctant to do.

“Susie’s combination of classic journalism chops with the unorthodox approach of drawing stuff suits us beautifully,” said Rosenberg, who thinks Cagle’s unique journalism tool chest lets the story dictate the method and treatment. Grist’s integrated design and software development team have also worked to solve any problems that may arise from mixing text-and-image work into the confines of the content management system.

“Because of the nature of newsroom workflow, and the way most journalists are locked into being ‘just a writer’ or ‘just an artist,’ too often editors have to decide ahead of time how to handle a story — which toolset to apply,” Rosenberg said. “Susie can be much more flexible and responsive to the story itself. That’s a great advantage.”

Cagle said the biggest hits among readers have been explainer infographics, in which she uses her cartoon style to break down complex issues into a visually appealing narrative that’s not intimidating to digest. In the case of a story she wrote about the medical marijuana industry, telling the story in sequential art allowed her access to what a “traditional” reporter may not have been afforded.

“I was able to interview a grower who did not want to reveal his identity. Not only was I able to depict him as a real person speaking to me, but the medium actually made him more comfortable,” Cagle said. “There’s a humanity to illustration that other types of documentation don’t necessarily have in the same way.”

Another website taking advantage of the graphic possibilities a cartoonist has to offer is Newsworks.org, the online home of Philadelphia NPR affiliate WHYY (Full disclosure: I am a WHYY contributor). In April 2012, Chris Satullo, executive director of news and civic dialogue at WHYY, stole Pulitzer prize-wining cartoonist Tony Auth (syndicated by Universal Uclick) from his longtime home at The Philadelphia Inquirer and gave him the job as WHYY’s first digital artist in residence.

The position, according to Satullo, is intended to allow the popular cartoonist to experiment with new forms of visual storytelling, such as the animated drawings that Auth makes on his iPad that materialize before the readers’ eyes, along with audio commentary that helps flesh out the story.

“The Web is a visual medium, and in a social media universe, people are constantly forwarding things they want to share,” Satullo said. “Cartoons and visual ideas seem to be more intrinsically sharable than simple written pieces.”

The Web offers a lot of freedom to experiment with this form of journalism, and it doesn’t require a great leap of technology to handle images and audio. Satullo said he sees a lot of promise in the unique abilities that Auth can bring to a story, and the most exciting aspect is in not knowing where it will end up.

“The coolest idea for how to deploy his talent and craft probably hasn’t dawned on us yet,” Satullo said.


Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor & Publisher and can be reached at robtornoe@gmail.com.