Yes, But Where’s the Nut Graf?

It was Tuesday morning at Poynter, and Howard Finberg approached with a copy of The New York Times



The Times has run comics before — in The New York Times Magazine, for instance, or as “op art” on the Op-Ed page. But I hadn’t seen any in the news pages before. What was this thing? And who was responsible for it?

Campbell Robertson is a clerk on the Metro desk at the Times. A 1998 Georgetown grad, he drew a cartoon for The Hoya and wrote his senior thesis as — get ready for it — a comic book.

But he didn’t come to the Times burning with the desire to get a funny drawing into the Metro section. Rather, his return to sequential art came about by chance.

Robertson had written some stories for Times Talk, the paper’s internal newsletter. The newsletter’s editor, Eden Lipson, heard about his paneled past, and she said, why not do a comic for us?

So he did. (Click the first item.)

Then Anne Cronin, an editor at the Times, saw his work in Times Talk, and she said, why not do a comic for the Metro section?

So he did. (600K .gif, 1200 pixels wide)

Robertson had been doing leg work for Joyce Wadler’s Boldface Names column, so a comic portraying the paparrazi scene seemed a natural choice. In mid-October, when Robertson reported his piece, Madonna was in town, shooting a music video with Britney Spears. Robertson joined the paparazzi pack, and found himself drawn to Lawrence Schwartzwald, who became the main character in his narrative.

In the field, Robertson sketched figures and jotted quotes simultaneously. Later, he also returned to the Four Seasons hotel — the eventual scene of his story — to take photos for reference.

The editing process for Robertson’s piece was somewhere between that of a written article and an infographic. He worked with Anne Cronin to edit his story down to 13 panels, and the text for those got a standard copy-edit. Then he sketched a rough draft in pencil. After that was approved, he did the final draft in ink. All told, the comic took two weeks to draw.

What was the reaction inside the newsroom? I asked Michael Kolomatsky, who art-directs the Metro front. He wrote:

Something like this is unusual for the news pages of our paper, but people around here were positive and interested. There was a certain amount of curiosity and more than the usual number of people came around my terminal … to get a peek at my screen to see what it was looking like. It was unusual enough to merit being shown around in advance. But everyone went with it.
In the finished piece, word balloons represent live, on-the-scene quotes — words Robertson actually heard while out with the paparazzi. The caption boxes are narration and quotes that Robertson got later, over the phone.

That distinction is interesting. What are the rules of comics journalism, anyway? What are the conventions?

Poynter’s Bill Mitchell shared Robertson’s piece with a seminar group here on Tuesday afternoon:



How indeed? I asked Anne Cronin. Here’s what she wrote back:
In the New York edition, we run a feature on the Metro front every day. This feature story, called the display, is always boxed and has its own headline format.

The cartoon ran in that box. Campbell drew the headline to mimic the normal format. And the story began with his byline, as any other feature would.

So we assumed that our readers would pick up on those visual clues and figure out that the cartoon was the display.
(In the national edition, the comic ran a little more anonymously on page A22.)

So can we look forward to more comics journalism in the Metro section?

“We like to experiment, and we like the kind of projects that reflect the full panoply of what the city has to offer,” Cronin writes. But, “it’s not as though The New York Times is going to be running cartoons on a regular basis any time soon.”


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