Using examples of compelling visual & interactive techniques in print & online, Sara Quinn offers tips on concept, craft and collaboration.


How The Verge used visuals to tell the delicate story of a face transplant

The ordeal of a woman who received a total face transplant is hard for an audience to fathom without seeing it. But Verge science editor Katie Drummond had a challenge beyond potentially making some readers squeamish: how to tell the story with the care and respect Carmen Tarleton deserved.

45-year-old Carmen Tarleton worked as a registered nurse in Thetford, Vt., before she was attacked by her husband in 2007. She has two daughters, Hannah and Liza.

Tarleton’s ex-husband attacked her with lye and a baseball bat in 2007, and media coverage afterward upset her because it prefaced stories with disclaimers like “‘warning, this footage is graphic and may disturb some viewers,’” Drummond wrote in an e-mail to Poynter.

That horrified Tarleton, Drummond wrote. “The idea that her own face was being treated as if she was some kind of monster, or that her disfigurement made her somehow less human.”

Drummond and the editors at The Verge wanted to respect Tarleton’s feelings.

“When you’re telling the intimate story of someone who’s been through such inconceivable challenges,” said Drummond. “It becomes even more important to accurately and sensitively capture who they are and what they’ve been through.”

The Verge decided to tell the story through Drummond’s text, sensitively rendered illustrations and a mesmerizing video interview with Tarleton created by Sam Thonis and Stephen Greenwood after her surgery.

Tarleton had agreed to the television interviews back in 2007, said Drummond, but she had lost her vision in the attack, “so had absolutely no idea what her face looked like.”

Her interview with The Verge is juxtaposed with photos of Tarleton as a beautiful young woman and with images of Cheryl Denelli-Righter, a stroke victim who became the donor of her new face.

Seeing and hearing Tarleton tell her own story gives a clear view of her courageousness that would be otherwise tough to comprehend.

After the surgery, she invited Denelli-Righter’s daughter Marinda Righter to touch her mother’s face, now her own. Her mother “is still here, because I have her face,” said Tarleton in the video. “I can’t help but think… I could just go up to Vermont and give my mom’s face a kiss,” Righter told Drummond.

Tarleton’s speech is still difficult to understand because of the surgery and will be on the long recovery ahead, but the former registered nurse is frank and articulate. She’s currently learning to play piano and dating her instructor.

The story’s lead image is a drawing of two faces coming together as one.

Katie Scott created the illustrations for the story, including this conceptual image.

“We wanted to work with someone who had a scientific touch to their drawings but wasn’t necessarily an anatomical illustrator,” said Verge art director James Chae, who commissioned illustrator Katie Scott.

Drawings throughout the presentation help to tie together other concepts visually, like the tricky surgical procedure, potential risks and illnesses, the long-term need for medication and the possible loss of personal identity.

The Verge crew worked closely together to tell the complicated story that had to come together in one package. “I feel we are given a lot of license to be the author and really tell a story,” Chae said in a telephone interview. “The word is thrown around a lot, but here at The Verge, it is a really intimate collaboration. Everyone has input.”

“We all felt as if we were telling a story that was … the unbelievable ability of a face transplant to profoundly change someone’s life,” said Drummond.

It was important that readers be exposed to both the before and the after in images and video, she said, “because we really wanted to convey what this woman endured and what this surgery accomplished.”

A reader expressed shock when he first saw the image in the story of Tarleton before surgery, said Drummond. Then he finished the story and watched the video. “When (he) went back to that image,” she said, “it was much less jarring — [he] just saw a woman. I really appreciated hearing that, and I think it gets at what we were trying to convey … Carmen is ‘just a woman,’ albeit an incredible one who overcame incredible odds—and we hoped readers would see that.” Read more


Wednesday, Mar. 20, 2013

How one illustrator approaches investigative reporting

Artist Marina Luz faced a journalistic challenge.

She had to illustrate the story of a young woman named “Jennifer,” who had been sexually abused in a state-run facility. But she could not use an image of Jennifer. What’s more, she couldn’t show what Jennifer or any of the other people in the story actually looked like.

Could we understand Jennifer — a troubled, young disabled woman — without actually seeing her?

Luz solved the problem with expressive drawings that were then paired with narration, music and a statement from Jennifer’s mother, read by an actor to further disguise their identities. Jennifer is not the young woman’s real name.

There are no bright colors in Luz’s renderings — only sketchy black lines and muted shades of brown, gray and blue.

Drawings of people in the story are “a mix of fragile, thin, line drawings,” Luz said in an e-mail interview. And the background has “a subtle bit of distress or distortion to give texture and a feeling of discord.”

Her drawings walk us through a difficult time in Jennifer’s life.

Luz worked closely with producer/writer/director Carrie Ching on the project called “In Jennifer’s Room,” which was published by California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting last fall. (My colleague Al Tompkins wrote about the project and Luz’s illustrations here.)

The lines of Marina Luz’s work are tenuous and sketchy. Her backgrounds show variations of texture in muted tones of brown, gray and blue.

“Coming from an artistic and not a journalistic background … I hadn’t realized how unusual the approach was to journalism,” Luz said.

At the beginning of the project, Luz received a script from the producer, comprised of narration and interviews. She also received notes on various scenes Ching wanted and where they would appear in relation to the script.

Luz said she sent back a storyboard with “ridiculously rudimentary thumbnail sketches. There’s no finesse to the storyboard at all, just the minimum necessary to convey the basic composition of each frame.”

For accuracy, Luz consulted photos of the hospital facility, especially the Corcoran Unit where the young woman was housed.

Writer Ryan Gabrielson had spent a year-and-a-half reporting on the “Broken Shield” project that “In Jennifer’s Room” was part of. He provided a diagram of the young woman’s hospital room. Luz also received information about some of Jennifer’s specific bruises and injuries, like the shapes of bites and handprints, and where they were found on her body.

Beyond that, there were no specific details other than those included in the script. This was a deliberate editing choice, according to Luz, in order to conceal the identity of all involved.

“I (knew) exactly as much as the viewers, in most cases, which is just the information in the script,” wrote Luz. “Anything more would be a terrible burden,” referring to the way she approaches an emotional, unfolding story like this.

Jennifer and her mother appear in the drawings, but only as impressions. “Deliberately, I’m given no identifying details about the people involved whatsoever,” Luz said. When she drew images depicting the possible attackers, “I tried to draw them so that they look like real people but not specific people.”

There is a delicate balance in illustrating a story like this, wrote Luz. “You want to make a truly heartbreaking narrative interesting and accessible, but also keep it tasteful. Aesthetically, you’re trying to be evocative without being heavy-handed, and realistic without being specific.”

After more feedback on the storyboard sketches, Luz chose a few of the drawings to do more finished versions and refine the overall style. “Once those are greenlit,” Luz said, “it’s on.”

The drawing style has “a visual parallel to, say, the scratchy sound on an old record player,” wrote Luz of her approach. “And it’s all connected (to the overall video), the drawings are only part of creating that mood.”

Three pieces of music and sound effects back up the voice track. “I thought the music used in the piece gave it such a poignant atmosphere,” wrote Luz. “I don’t think the drawings would have worked nearly as well without that. “

Luz has had other assignments for reportage, or news illustration. Most often, she’s  captured the flavor of an event or story with a much lighter tone, like a horse race, a beer tasting or a white elephant sale. She is a writer, as well as an artist who works out of her studio in Oakland, Calif.

Luz also created the illustrations for “The Man Who Killed Osama bin Laden” — the widely viewed interview with the Navy SEAL who left the military after he killed the terrorist.

Again, the key for Luz was to create an emotional, expressive style of image.

“It called for a much different style than line drawings, and the illustrations ended up as rough-hewn blocks of light and shadow,” Luz said. “More concrete, heavy and literally darker.”

For the story of Jennifer, Luz used art as a specific solution “born of the challenge of keeping the subjects anonymous,” she said. “But I hope that these stories have opened the door for a wider and much less restricted usage of illustration.”

Here’s the full video:

Here’s a related News University Webinar on illustrated journalism. Read more


Tuesday, Mar. 19, 2013

job satisfaction napkin doodle

‘Journalist’ or ‘illustrator’? How self-identification affects designers’ job satisfaction

When veteran newspaper artist and designer Charles Apple worked at the (Raleigh) News & Observer in the 1990’s, he and his colleagues had an ongoing discussion about how they viewed their own jobs.

As they drew up the artwork, maps and infographics that adorned each day’s paper, they’d talk about whether their work constituted “journalism” and whether they thought of themselves as “journalists.”

For Apple, who never hesitated to grab a sketch pad and head out to a crime scene or natural disaster, the answer was obvious. He considered himself every bit a journalist — just as the paper’s reporters and photographers did. But some of his fellow designers saw themselves differently.

“Their point was that they’re not really journalists; they’re just illustrators,” Apple told me from southern California, where he’s now at the Orange County Register. “To them, it was just like working at an ad agency or anyplace else.”

That contrast among newspaper designers isn’t unusual, but a recent study suggests designers’ self-characterization of their jobs may be more than just fodder for newsroom debates. It also could play a role in their job satisfaction, especially as media companies move designers out of individual newsrooms and into consolidated hubs that serve several publications.

The small study by South Florida Sun Sentinel designer Rachel Schallom found that newspaper designers who consider themselves journalists are happier working in newsrooms, while those who think of themselves as artists or illustrators prefer working in the centralized design centers.

“People who identified as journalists got satisfaction from collaboration with editors and reporters,“ said Schallom, who conducted the study for her master’s thesis at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. “They liked content creation.”

On the other hand, those who don’t consider themselves journalists (three of the ten people Schallom interviewed) had different feelings about their work and the articles it accompanies.

“[They] said they don’t read the story and don’t care what it’s about,” Schallom said in a phone interview. “They just like the craft of graphic design.”

Are non-journalists a better fit?

It may be tempting for people with journalistic backgrounds to look down upon colleagues who admit to not reading the news. (Apple said he rarely hires people for design jobs unless they show interest in newspapers.) But Schallom’s findings suggest that those non-journalists may be a good fit for many of today’s design and layout jobs.

Companies such as Gannett, Tribune and McClatchy have centralized hundreds of those positions into hubs or design studios, where each employee typically works on several different newspapers. The centers vary in their responsibilities. Some employ designers who at least occasionally are called upon to construct complex graphics and major artwork for local newspapers. Others centers more closely resemble “assembly line” operations, where designers are limited to doing basic layout work.

In almost all of the consolidated centers, though, designers have less contact with reporters, and opportunities to actually visit breaking news scenes are virtually nonexistent.

“A lot of the people who were looking for more of a journalism role found they were very unsatisfied,” Schallom said.

Yet the designers who didn’t consider themselves journalists — people who typically attended art school or graphic design programs rather than journalism school — told Schallom they liked the hub work.

“They really didn’t want to work with the editors and the reporters,” Schallom said.

Schallom’s study, while small, might provide some guidance to managers tasked with staffing consolidated centers and addressing the high turnover rates that have plagued some of the operations.

It also spotlights the potential challenge faced by journalistically-trained designers, who may be dissatisfied working in centralized studios but are unable to land one of the increasingly rare design jobs in newsrooms.

Schallom’s newspaper — the South Florida Sun-Sentinel — still has a small local design desk, but much of each day’s paper consists of templated “mods” prepared at the central editing and design hub of its parent, Tribune Company. Dozens of other papers around the country now employ no designers or graphic artists at all. Apple’s former department at the News & Observer has been disbanded and the design and copy editing functions have been consolidated to a McClatchy Company center in Charlotte.

Unsurprisingly, many designers who self-identify as journalists have chosen to leave the profession, rather than pursue jobs at consolidated editing and design hubs.

“I don’t know if consolidated centers would be my kind of place,” said former designer and copy editor Abby Langston, who was laid off from the Winston-Salem Journal when Media General moved the design and copy desks to a center. “It’s kind of ‘plug and chug’ and get it done as fast as you can.”

Langston now works at a custom publishing house that produces Wal-Mart’s monthly employee magazine.

Different from journalism school

Schallom is quick to note that her thesis doesn’t judge whether it’s better for newspapers to employ centralized or local designers. She said both models have some merit. For instance, not only do the centralized centers save money, but she said they’ve helped smaller papers improve their design from the days when overburdened newsroom employees had to lay out pages in addition to writing and editing stories.

Even Apple, who said he’s “disturbed” by the consolidations, conceded that some of the centralized hubs are doing good work. He singled out Gannett’s center in Des Moines, which he said is providing some “really nice cover designs” to the chain’s newspapers in the upper Midwest, many of which never had the resources to do advanced design work on their own.

Still, Schallom says her colleagues in the graphics and design field need to understand that the environment in the centralized hubs differs from that of newsrooms and may not mesh with their expectations. She recalls that after Gannett began opening its consolidated centers in 2010, it offered positions to several of her fellow students at Missouri.

“People were taking them because they were job offers,” Schallom said, “and they were very unsatisfied because it was so much different from anything you learned in journalism school.”

Which term do you identify with, and why? Read more


Thursday, Mar. 14, 2013

Magnifying Glass - Web Design

What journalists need to know about Web design

Fifty milliseconds. That’s how quickly visitors can form strong, long-lasting impressions about your news or information website. But they aren’t sizing up the quality of your content or the sophistication of your code. They’re making nearly instantaneous, mostly subconscious judgments about how your work has been designed.

Those assessments can lead to very conscious — and consequential — conclusions about the merits of your page, product or platform. Bad graphic design can damage perceptions about your credibility. It can make your content harder to understand and render your work less appealing.

The visual Web

The Web is a visual medium. It didn’t start that way, back when HTML truly was all about marking up text. Over the years, though, the options for shaping the appearance of a Web page have grown more plentiful and sophisticated.

Now, of course, Web producers have a wide range of design tools at their disposal. Color, typography, imagery, positioning and many more design elements can be tuned to exacting detail. Emerging technologies like CSS3 and HTML5 make it easy to implement these visual ideas.

In the right hands, an array of design choices can produce impressive results. Misapplied, they can create a visual cacophony.

Thinking about design

To create a strong visual expression of your work, nothing beats working with a top-notch designer. Sometimes, though, you need to figure things out on your own, whether you’re bootstrapping your business or freelancing a multimedia story.

And, it’s always helpful to know the language digital artisans use to think about their craft, whether it’s floats and functions or points and pixels.

Good design skills may seem innate, even mystical. But the best designers are well-versed in a core set of widely-applicable principles. They’ve internalized the techniques prescribed by these ideas, applying them methodically and appropriately.

Fortunately for the rest of us, good Web design builds on the same principles that underly design in general. These are tenets you can study and apply. Many are rooted in psychology and perception — the way we attach meaning to color, search for patterns, crave balance, identify outliers and make sense of the world.

Three principles of Web design

Graphic design isn’t about making something “look pretty” but rather more easily understood. Good design is about communication. On news sites, it’s about helping readers identify the newest content, differentiate blogs from news reports, and spot the biggest story of the day. It’s about helping readers scan through lots of content to find the most important stories and the items that interest them most.

With these goals in mind, here are three principles of Web design that should guide your efforts:

1. Favor the simple over the complex. Whether you call it minimalist or simply a clean design, striving for simplicity is one of the best ways to ensure good results. A simple design is easier to implement, and it’s easier to interpret.

Simplicity is about limiting your options. Instead of using colors haphazardly, pick a scheme of just a few colors that work well together, and stick to them. Instead of five font families, pick two. In designing any particular element, start with the most basic implementation and see if it’s enough. Work from there.

2. Be consistent. Let’s say you come up with a certain design treatment for the headlines on your site that utilizes a particular font, color, size. Use that approach consistently across your product, only varying it with specific intent. Consistency is especially important from page to page or screen to screen. Make sure the design conventions you establish carry through your work. If your home page uses one color scheme, section landing pages should too, unless you’re specifically looking to brand those areas with color.

3. Express your voice. Every design choice you make tells your readers something about your product, your company, yourself.

Seven ways to design better Web content

Let’s take a look at some tactics we can use to develop a good design with the principles above as a foundation.

1. Use a grid. In Web design, a grid is an invisible set of equal-width columns along which the elements of a page are aligned. The gutters, or spaces between the columns, are also equal. Most grids utilize 12, 16 or 24 columns, and this transparent skeleton provides structure and alignment for a design. Grids appear in print design, too, and they’re a great way to help guide viewers as they scan through the contents of a page, whether it’s in print or on the screen. By designing content that spans multiple columns, designers can exercise lots of flexibility within seemingly rigid constraints.

Technology site The Verge adheres to a grid in its layout. The main structure rests along a three-column design, though certain elements break out of that mold. The use of a grid is evident from the way content lines up. In this example, the “Chromebook pixel review” headline lines up perfectly under the “Google on a non-profit budget” headline above it.

The Verge aligns its content to grid.

2. Repeat elements. Developing a design element — and then repeating it — is a great way to establish continuity and organization.

On a news site, repetition can be used to group similar kinds of content. The Christian Science Monitor, for example, uses different treatments for blog and news story entries on its homepage. Blog entries get smaller thumbnails and kickers. News items get bigger headlines and leads. The treatment for a given kind of content, though, is repeated every time it appears.

The Christian Science Monitor repeats many design elements, including the entries in these blog and news story lists.

3. Use white space. Sometimes, leaving space in a design is just as important as filling it with something. This white space helps establish the relationship between elements, directing viewers’ attention. Generous use of white space — elements of a design that aren’t, well, designed — is one of the best ways to pursue simplicity. NPR makes extensive use of white space in their design, especially around key elements like headlines. All this room helps direct visitors to the most important content on the page.

4. Establish a hierarchy. By varying the size, color and positioning of elements, designers can establish a hierarchy for a section or page. This helps readers prioritize what they’re seeing, providing a kind of roadmap they can use to skim content.

The Boston Globe makes extensive use of hierarchy to establish importance. In this example, the first story on this homepage list gets priority not just with its position, but with a larger headline font.

The Boston Globe gives prominence to its most important “latest news entry” by enlarging its headline.

5. Use texture and depth. These are ways to make a design more interesting. They often help reinforce a voice or brand.

In Web design, texture most often appears in the background, for example, behind the content in a footer or header section. It involves variation in the colors or shades of color used and can create the impression that something is polished, rustic, crumpled, etc. Depth creates the illusion that some elements on a page are stacked above or below others. It can be created with drop shadows and by varying the opacity of elements.
The Las Vegas Sun creates a subtle textured effect in their footer with the graphic of a sun. As part of their logo, this effect adds visual interest to the footer and reinforces the Sun’s brand.

6. Convey meaning with color. To maximize usability, color shouldn’t be used as the sole means to communicate meaning, but it’s an effective reinforcement. Adapting a tradition from its print edition, USA Today makes extensive use of color to “tag” its content: blue for news, purple for entertainment, gray for opinion and so on.

In this headline grid, color appears behind the tag and fills the squares when they’re hovered over.

USA Today reinforces there content categories with color. Blue, for example, always means “news.”

7. Establish importance with contrast. Establishing a pattern — then breaking it with something that stands out — draws visitors’ attention to a certain element on a page. Contrast can be created any many ways – through color, typography, size, shape and more. The Schenectady, NY-based Daily Gazette uses red in its otherwise blue-toned color scheme to punctuate timestamps on its most recently published stories.

Form and Function

Web design is a rich topic, and I’ve only scratched the surface here. You might go deeper with self-directed training from Poynter’s NewsU on specific topics like typographyuser interface design and color in news design.

Just remember: At its best, Web design isn’t about putting a “skin” on a finished concept. “Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union,” Frank Lloyd Wright said. In terms of creating on the Web, design should be considered alongside content, even developed in tandem with it.

And, for news sites and apps, design serves a special purpose: We know many consumers like to skim, and well-designed content is one of the best ways to make content scanning easy. Read more

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Tuesday, Mar. 12, 2013


Tablet storytelling is visual, tappable, deep

Three years after Apple and others put digital tablets firmly into the hands of consumers, what do we really know about the way the devices are used for news?

Hundreds of people filed in to a large ballroom at South by Southwest last week for “Lean Forward, Lean Back: Tablet News Experience” to hear perspectives from Poynter research, focus groups and practical case studies from news organizations around the world.

The session brought together part of Poynter’s research team, led by Poynter’s Sara Quinn, who shared findings of the Institute’s EyeTrack: Tablet study, with Mario Garcia, CEO and founder of Garcia Media, and researcher/developer David Stanton from Smart Media Creative. Jeremy Gilbert of Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern was also on the research team.

“It’s essential for editors to rethink how the audience consumes content,” Garcia told the crowd.

The international news designer recommends a multisensory approach to designing for the brain, the eye and the hands. “You must keep the finger happy,” he said, meaning that a tablet user expects to find elements of surprise and engagement. “Like a children’s pop-up book,” he said.

When Garcia maps out the possibilities for interactive “pop-up moments” in a story, he thinks of it much as a screen director might develop a storyboard. He sketches out each facet and puts it up on the wall to step back and look at the flow.

“You should be able to click on an image or photograph for more information, or for a video,” he said. “Pop-ups don’t have to be complicated. But if all you do is turn the pages, your readers are not going to be happy.”

Poynter’s eyetracking study showed a strong tendency for tablet users to focus on content by keeping nearly constant contact with the screen — touching, tapping, pinching and swiping frequently.

“A high expectation comes with the device,” said Quinn. “During our study, we saw readers tap and tap on elements that weren’t tappable,” she said. “The element of discovery is one of the joys of the tablet. And for journalists and storytellers, it takes practice to develop the skills to create consistently strong interactive experience in a story — especially in a daily product.”

recent study shows that tablets engage online users longer than smart phones, Garcia reported.

The Adobe Digital Marketing findings, released March 6, found that said people read at greater length on tablets than on other devices. Adobe found that “on average, users view 70 percent more pages per visit when browsing with a tablet compared to a smart phone.”

Tablets have become the primary device for mobile browsing, Garcia said. Global websites are now getting more traffic from tablets than smartphones, 8% and 7% of monthly page views respectively, according to the study. This includes surfing, video use and shopping online.

“Smart phones are used for shorter visits and moments between moments,” said Quinn, “the tablet lends itself to more leisurely use — perhaps ideal for more in-depth reading and browsing.”

“All of this means change for both storytellers and advertisers,” said Garcia, mentioning the morning and evening editions of Dubai’s Gulf News app and others. “We have seen evidence that users prefer to use it in the evening hours which, we assume, allows for more of an in-depth experience as users are in a more leisure mode,” he wrote in a recent post on The Mario Blog.

“We are going to see more ‘editioning’ — the creation of mini-newspapers and mini-magazines on smartphones,” Garcia said by email.

Garcia commended the German tabloid Bild and the Huffington Post tablet edition for great multi-sensory work. Bild currently has eight staffers who create three to four pop-up experiences each day. They also make good use of templates, he said, so that they are able to focus on the quality of the content.

Tablet research continues, as this summer, Poynter will release results on how touch and interactivity help people understand and remember what they’ve read.

Read more


Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013

New York Times’ ‘Seinfeld-esque’ sports page shows the power of nothing

Kapow! Blam! Surprise! Sometimes, that’s what nothing can do.

The New York Times sports staff reminded us of that again with their cover “story” about this year’s Baseball Hall of Fame inductees — or lack, thereof.


This sports front about the lack of inductees to the 2013 Baseball Hall of Fame was designed by Wayne Kamidoi.

“Given the news, the package was Seinfeld-esque,” said Sports Art Director Wayne Kamidoi, “a cover about nothing.”

Kamidoi likes to push the boundaries when it comes to conceptual design, especially when there is a point to be made.

Conceptual design often involves a marriage of words and images that tells a story in the arrangement itself.

The staff was not surprised that nominees Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens didn’t make it, but it “felt like history had spoken,” said Sports Editor Joe Sexton in a note to staff sent Thursday morning. “How to convey that to our readers? I think we did it—a striking, profound emptiness.”

As they planned the design throughout the evening, most of the discussion was contained to the sports department. “Maybe out of fear?” wrote Kamidoi in an e-mail interview. “There was some apprehension, including from myself,” he said. “I was not reassured when the sports editor said on his way home he told the news desk about what we were planning … and walked away very fast.”

Concepts as unusual as this one work best when all of the details have been considered. It might be a visual wink and nod to a situation that captures the reaction to a story that people will be talking about the next day.

In this case, the staff felt the amount of white space represented was appropriate “to present a story that COULD have been,” if there had been an actual list of inductees, said Kamidoi. “Ultimately, some of the marquee names of The Steroids Era were rendered in agate-size type, a mere footnote in baseball history, at the bottom of the package.”

They worked to ensure that the few words that did appear in the story worked clearly. “I’m fortunate to have some sharper minds nearby like designer/illustrator Sam Manchester, graphics editor Joe Ward and baseball editor Jay Schreiber,” said Kamidoi, “to refine the concept.”

Over the years, Kamidoi has been inspired by a body of conceptual design work by “the informal fraternity of newspaper sports designers” he said. “Most of the best and fun concepts are done under deadline duress, and without having staff pizza. Concepts by Joe Zeff, before he became an app design warrior, and Christoph Niemann are some of my favorites.”

The power of a simple idea—in this case a startling void of information as an avid sports reader opens up the paper—can be remarkably engaging.

“Our night sports editor said we received phone calls from two of our print sites to see if we had made a mistake in typesetting the page,” said Kamidoi. Most savvy sports readers likely caught the gist, right away. Read more


Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012

Using illustrated reportage to cover human trafficking in Nepal’s brick kilns

I am writing this from Kathmandu, Nepal, where I’m currently reporting on human trafficking using graphic journalism. I chose Nepal because visuals have huge potential here to reach at-risk communities with low literacy levels. Using comics to adapt survivor testimonies into a visual format preserves both the impact of the story as well as the identity of the storytellers.

Often when conducting interviews or visiting sites where trafficking is taking place, it would either be inappropriate, disrespectful or at worst traumatic for the subjects to be filmed or photographed as they share their stories. Somehow sketching circumvents that issue and, in many cases, has helped forge a closer connection between me and my interviewee, as was the case in the examples below. I’m also part of a research team conducting the first in-depth study to quantify the effectiveness of different media in awareness-raising programs in the field: my comics comprise the main content.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the overall project, there is a video introduction to it on its (now funded) Kickstarter page.

Another large part of the project is looking at different approaches to visual reporting: I started a webcomic; have produced comics journalism pieces for the Nepali Times and BBC; and am incorporating more and more illustrated reportage. I chose the latter for this recent assignment to the brick kilns of Bhaktapur out of respect for those I interviewed, as well as the fact that a camera is just plain unwelcome in some situations.

I find illustrated reportage an easier way to process all the information – simultaneously parsing the important quotes from my translator as well as the visual details in front of me – to give a more vital reflection of my experience at the time. Not to mention the shorter turnaround time, which is a key obstacle in the time-consuming production process of my regular comics, for which each page goes through research/scripting, thumb nailing  penciling, inking, scanning, colouring and lettering.

The sketches below were all done in the field last week and scanned directly from my sketchbook. Their only contact with Photoshop was being cut into chunks to fit the format of this site. I hope to refine and improve my process during my time here (I leave in May) and I would be very interested in hearing feedback from readers and editors alike about their thoughts on this style of reporting, or suggestions on incorporating it into their publications. Click on any of the images to open a larger version in a new window.

Bhaktapur is home to 64 of the 110 kilns in the Kathmandu valley, just under an hour by road from the capital. The majority of the workers are seasonal, spending half their year working in the fields and the other living on-site in the dusty red shadows of the chimneys. Many of those I spoke to were there to pay off loans to naikes (nepali for “middlemen”) whose exorbitant rates of interest keep their borrowers stuck in a cycle of bonded labor, year after year. You’ll notice as well in the second worker’s speech balloon that my translator was directly doubting his comments about sending his children to school — perhaps in relation to a recent raid that has raised reporters’ suspicions.

[IC is "Indian Currency"].

Although admittedly sketchy, the following portraits convey a sense of personality and character when combined with the snippets of sentences uttered by the children and siblings of the workers above: unposed, hurried and straight to ink as they wondered around me, inquisitive as any child would be. As you can see, I experimented with doing full-color on Pankaj, only to find it was too time-consuming.

The stories were much the same at the second site: Parents telling us that their children were in school, but offering little proof — all the less convincing because they were on-site working while I was conducting interviews.

Quick sketching also gives me the ability to include mini-explainers, back of the napkin-style, such as the five-part process of making bricks at the bottom of the following image. Another advantage of sketching in this instance was the fact that few people were willing to take a break from making bricks — understandable, given that they are paid by the thousand — forcing me to create a composite image of them while they were working, as opposed to a more static, posed portrait. This echoes the vitality in the line and use of light and shade typically seen in other, non-posed visual journalism such as courtroom sketches.

The younger the children were, the less willing they were to be approached or photographed, as I mentioned earlier.

Two more examples of the benefits of live sketching versus after the fact: I was forced to improvise a doppelganger for Hari (in the lower right corner below) as he was too busy making bricks to stay still while answering my questions. Likewise, Dinmaya didn’t stop to look up at me once, so a posed head-on portrait shot wouldn’t have captured my (admittedly brief) impression of her fully.

The balance of words and image is another key factor in presenting this sort of work, which in this case forced me to come up with a quick solution to separate the two voices of the workers below on the fly. Interestingly, the overlapping speech balloons are a neat metaphor for my experience of the joint interview: full of interruptions, overlapping comments and a general struggle to hear one voice over the other. Not to mention the doubt emerging as to who was telling the truth — represented by the speech balloon in the middle pointing to a blank space, which was actually a shortcut I used to refer to a comment made by my translator.

Last was my conversation with the manager of the kiln, another situation where the appearance of a camera would have only made him reluctant to talk or exacerbated his suspicions of an outsider’s motives for being there in the first place.

For the technically-minded among you, I used a Carbon pen on a 9″ x 12″ aquabee sketchpad, coloured with a Sakura water brushpen using a Koi pocket field watercolour sketch box. For more graphic journalism, visit Read more


Monday, Dec. 10, 2012


Why do we blame the (visual) messenger for tragedies?

With the click of a shutter, in a dimly illuminated New York City subway tunnel, on the evening of December 3, it happened again.

Actually, it was more like several clicks of the shutter, and the “it” was another tragic act of human inhumanity.

Independent photographer R. Umar Abbasi was the authentic witness to a crime beyond our wildest imaginations. After a verbal altercation, 31-year-old Naeem Davis, now charged with second-degree murder, pushed 58-year-old Ki-Suck Han, of Queens, N.Y., into the path of an oncoming subway train.

Almost immediately after the New York Post published the photograph of Han’s last few living moments on the cover of their tabloid and their website, it seems like everyone — media and citizen alike — blamed the visual messenger for doing his journalistic duty.

In this modern era, with all of our personal digital assistants and the 24-hour news cycle, now more than ever in human history, viewers want — even expect — to see tragic and sometimes morbid reflections of life ASAP! The need for speed drives the habits of iPhone, Android, tablet scrolling users with an insatiable need for the latest.

For the better part of last week, journalists, media pundits, academics and average consumers with voracious appetites for images have debated the media moral of the New York Post’s decision to publish the photograph. At last check, the paper that prides itself on holding the powerful accountable and publishing the truth, is dissonantly silent.

Public reaction

The reaction of the viewing public should not be a surprise to anyone. Throughout history, still photographs have touched the hearts and minds of audiences around the world, and, in America especially, they have moved audiences to action.

Just remember the photographic reporting of Civil War carnage by Mathew Brady; Civil Right Freedom Riders by Charles Moore; Vietnam Napalm Bombing by Nick Ut; US Soldiers being dragged and beaten in the dirt streets of Somalia by Paul Watson; the desperate and abandoned Katrina victims by Vincent Laforet, to name a few.

In each instance, the photographers themselves, their newsrooms and their audiences wrestled with a haunting question: Could you have helped the people inside the frame?

For the most part, I know these brave and courageous individuals who place their lives on the line repeatedly, so that others can witness some of life’s more daunting and perplexing facets. They see themselves as the eyes of the community, society’s lens.

Just pause and consider that when everyone else is fleeing, seeking safety, there are women and men who place themselves in harm’s way, much like law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency service workers, who press on toward the center of disaster and the epicenter of danger.

To document or to assist

Abbasi made a decision to document the imminent demise of Han; he may not have been able to reach Han in time or been strong enough to lift the Han from the track himself. So as he attempted to warn the conductor by rapidly flashing his camera’s flash unit, he also documented.

This begs the question, “Could he have done more?” Eighty percent of 17,786 viewers polled by the NBC “Today” show during Abbasi’s interview felt that he should have put the camera down and offered help to Mr. Han. My own personal survey of citizens in a physical therapy center in St. Petersburg, Fla., where I was rehabbing my knee said that 20-22 seconds was time enough to save Han.

And yet, our opinion is no match for Abbasi’s experience.

Abbasi stands firmly on his word, acknowledging that he was carrying some 20 pounds of gear and he himself felt threatened by overtures made toward him by the perpetrator, and maintains that, “there is no way that I could have saved him.”

Independence and intervention

It is a long-standing fact that journalists have historically been taught to maintain their independence and objectivity when covering stories, as those are essential elements of credibility. If I have heard it once, I have heard it a million times, “Our job is to cover the news and not create news.”

For the record, I myself have been a passionate supporter of this guideline. And, I have advanced my personal ethic to allow for the essential fact that I am a human being first and a journalist second. Therefore, in matters of life and death, if I can render aid, I will.

This flies in the face of objectivity and forces us to come to terms with our subjective realities.

What we publish

Whatever our purpose in documenting, it is a separate decision to publish images, as I said last week:

The moment just before death is a delicate fraction of a second and the NY Post print edition and cover screen image lacks compassion for the victim, his family, his friends and the Post’s audience. In a few words it is disgusting, disconcerting, insensate and intrusive.

I get that the photographer, Mr. Abbasi, made a decision to document the imminent demise of Mr. Ki Suk Han, because he may have not been strong enough to lift the injured man from the track himself and thus he made a decision to document after attempting to warn the conductor by “rapidly flashing” his camera’s flash unit.

There are times when authentically documented images are indeed too disturbing and cross the line of dignity and integrity. This moment was too private in my view.

And yes, I am saying that there are times that a photographic reporter may witness situations that are not published, broadcast or posted for public reviewing. The NY Post had several solid alternatives (just view their video).

My problem thus is with the publication’s editors, who clearly had alternative photographs to use and chose to use the most disturbing.

Reflection above reaction

As the next chapter in this tragedy plays out, Abbasi rightly feels that he is being made out to be the bad guy as others question his motives as they relate to contests, compensation and compromise. Much of this remains to be clarified and we have good reason to pause and consider that there may be some good that comes out of this tragedy, as lessons learned.

It is of little value to question the photographer’s ethical values and motives without holding the publishing organization accountable too.

At the end of one interview, Abbasi said that in looking at the underexposed, raw photographs, “you would say, I can not see anything in them.”

I beg to differ. I see a photographer that will suffer for many days with post-traumatic stress. A man that will be, for many days to come, the topic of ridicule and scorn even. A man whose images will raise some consciousness about safety for strap-hangers in New York City.

A man that at the end of his day, was trying to do his job the best way that he knew how. And I also see, from still photographs and surveillance video, many people in a better position to assist and offer aid, who did nothing. Read more


Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012

What journalists need to know about storytelling on tablets

Poynter’s most recent Eyetrack study reveals some interesting findings about how readers consume news on tablet devices. During a live chat, Poynter’s Sara Quinn and Northwestern University’s Jeremy Gilbert talked about the findings and their implications for journalists.

Here are some of the topics they addressed:

  • How to create stories that satisfy mobile and tablet users.
  • The differences between storytelling on tablets and storytelling on the Web.
  • What the elements of “touch” add to a story.
  • What helps people focus on stories they read on tablet devices.

Gilbert and Quinn, who helped lead the Eyetrack research, offered practical tips and answered related questions from the audience. You can replay the chat, which followed a related News University Webinar, here:

<a href=”″ mce_href=”″ >What journalists need to know about designing & crafting stories on tablets</a> Read more

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Monday, Nov. 12, 2012

This photo, taken by reporter Amy Scherzer for the Tampa Bay Times, shows (left to right) Jill Kelley's twin sister, Gen. David Petraeus, Scott Kelley, Jill Kelley, and Holly Petraeus.

How NY Daily News, Tampa Bay Times got those cover shots of Jill Kelley, David Petraeus

As journalists reported on Gen. David Petraeus’ resignation from the CIA, photos spread over the weekend of the women involved.

Petraeus resigned after the FBI learned he had an affair with biographer Paula Broadwell. The affair came to the FBI’s attention when another woman, Jill Kelley, complained to an FBI agent that Broadwell had sent her harassing emails.

All three people are married, and there have been no allegations that Kelley was romantically involved with Petraeus.

But in photographic coverage, context is king. And the images of Petraeus and Kelley appear to tell a different story.

This photo, taken by reporter Amy Scherzer for the Tampa Bay Times, shows (left to right) Jill Kelley’s twin sister, Gen. David Petraeus, Scott Kelley, Jill Kelley, and Holly Petraeus.

The Gasparilla photos

The photos that would define Jill Kelley started making their way to the world around 3:15 p.m. Sunday, when Tampa Bay Times Senior Photo Editor Patty Yablonski arrived at work. (Poynter owns the Tampa Bay Times.)

Yablonski “walked in the office and had Veterans Day to deal with and football. It was not a normal Sunday afternoon at all,” she told Poynter by phone.

Times staff writer Amy Scherzer had taken the photos of Jill Kelley with her husband, her twin sister and the Petraeuses nearly two years ago when Scherzer was covering Gasparilla, an annual Tampa social event. Scherzer had filed the photos to the system previously and alerted Yablonski to them Sunday.

Yablonski said she got calls from every newspaper on the east coast and Great Britain; the Daily News was the first to request the Gasparilla photos.

The Daily News used a cropped version of the Gasparilla photo (inset) that showed only Petraeus, Scott Kelley and Jill Kelley.

The Daily News photo

The main photo used by the Daily News was taken Sunday by Bill Serne, a former Tampa Bay Times editor and sports photographer who now operates his own independent company.

When he got the call from Daily News Picture Editor Kevin P. Coughlin, Serne was on a shoot at Dinosaur World in Plant City, Fla., about 25 minutes away from Kelley’s “Bayshore Boulevard mansion in South Tampa.”

Jill Kelley in her front yard during a birthday gathering on Bayshore Blvd., in Tampa, Fla., November 11, 2012. Photo by Bill Serne/NY DAILY NEWS

Serne, who accepted the stake-out assignment to go to Kelley’s house, told Poynter by phone: “Funny thing is, this is not the kind of paparazzi coverage that I normally do, it just fell into my lap.”

The Daily News texted Serne a blurry, out-of-focus, over-exposed source image and offered little concrete information. Serne was told to look for “kids and moms at a birthday party, and the key lady was 37 years old with dark hair.”

Coughlin, night photo editor at the Daily News, stayed in touch with Serne via cell phone.

“Serne went to the home and we thought that this was a high rise of some sort,” Coughlin says, but as soon as Serne got there he saw it was a house. Serne knew that he had the right place when the officers in brass showed up, he said. “It keeps getting better and better, now there is an attractive woman in red,” Serne told Coughlin. That woman was Jill Kelley.

Coughlin worked with Serne from the Daily News’ makeshift newsroom in New Jersey, where they relocated after Hurricane Sandy damaged their Manhattan offices. Coughlin’s home was also destroyed by the storm.

Serne, who was laid off from the Times about a year ago, used a Canon 70-200mm lens and a 5D Mark II to capture the photo.

Alexander Hitchen, Daily News managing editor for photos, told Poynter by email that Serne “got a fantastic set of photographs at the Kelley residence. They were obviously important because it captured the minutes just after Jill Kelley was named.”

The problem with file photos

The challenge that picture editors face in breaking news is that you don’t always have recent, relevant photographic material to use in reporting major developing stories.

The New York Post used a different photo of Jill Kelley from Gasparilla (shown in full below), cropped to remove Kelley’s husband and Gen. Petraeus’s wife.

Though there are multiple images of Petraeus available, which show him in a variety of military, professional and social settings, the photographs of Kelley are more limited. The only immediately available images of her were file photographs from a social occasion.

This is the original photo, before it was cropped and used by the Post.

The images of Petraeus in his dress military uniform juxtaposed against the informal images of Kelley set up a false impression. They show the general as an authority figure and imply Kelley is a party girl.

The Times cropped the Gasparilla photo for space, Yablonski said. In the process, Yablonski removed Kelley’s twin sister and Kelley’s boots and skirt length from the image, which was made available to Zuma Press and then the AP.

Making visual choices

Editors and producers must be sensitive to juxtapositions and cropping, and how the images might be interpreted. Photos tell a story, and not always the one we intend.

Monday morning, the Associated Press captured a more contemporary photograph of Kelley. It shows her in an everyday, contextual moment, not at a social event. She is leaving her house, aware that the media is following her.

Jill Kelley leaves her home Monday, Nov. 12, 2012 in Tampa, Fla. She serves as an unpaid social liaison to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, where the military’s Central Command and Special Operations Command are located. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

Correction: This story originally misspelled Alexander Hitchen’s name. Read more