Business journalism presented as a comic book
Crain’s Chicago Business published Friday a story — in comic book form — about Motorola’s problems and how competitors have taken over its core cell phone business.
The 13-panel story was written by John Pletz, a senior reporter covering technology and venture capital for the paper. He has been at Crain’s Chicago since 2007, and before that he was assistant business editor for the Indianapolis Star.
Brother and sister artists Peter and Maria Hoey — their work has appeared in Time, Rolling Stone and Playboy — illustrated the story, while the paper’s graphics editor Jason McGregor wrote the code to make the story work on mobile and desktop.
Crain’s Chicago editor Michael Arndt spoke with Talking Biz News by telephone Monday morning about the project. What follows is an edited transcript.
Why did Crain’s Chicago decide to use a comic book format for a story?
I have been a fan of this format for a long time and have watched as Bloomberg Businessweek and New York Times have told stories through that format and thought it would be fun to try it ourselves. It was just a matter of finding the right subject matter. It has to be a special story to work in this format.
How did you decide on Motorola as the subject for the comic book?
We were looking to do a what-happened-to-Motorola story, from start top finish, the rise and fall of a Chicago tech company. Initially, we were thinking of doing it in the more standard format, of 2,000 to 3,0000 words, with graphics and historic photos. But this was an instance where we could tell it in a narrative and a comic book format.
How long did it take to put together?
It took months. We started working on the story in early 2015. I worked with John Pletz, our tech writer and blogger, to come up with the story idea. And then I went over to our art department, Jason McGregor, and laid out my idea of telling the story in the new format.
And then we had John write up a script, which is really hard to do. You have to rethink how you tell a story. Each panel has to move the story along and tell the story in bite-size pieces. Jason worked remotely with the cartoonists over the course of two months. We tweaked each panel as need be. We tweaked the language.
The basic format is pretty similar to what we settled on in the beginning. But there are probably two dozen versions laying on my desk right now, and that’s not all of them.
Were there any hurdles to the project?
We really thought from the very beginning how this thing is going to work on mobile and desktop and then worked simultaneously with print, rather than take a print product and hope it fit into mobile. So Jason was piecing it into mobile to make sure it flowed right.
One of the hurdles was a small thing but we didn’t notice until near the end. There are a couple of narrators. And they have dialogue bubbles. But if you kept those dialogue bubbles in the cell, they were so tiny you couldn’t read them on a smart phone.
Another hurdle was to figure out a way to make the audio work. When you’re on desktop, you’re able to do more with the audio. On mobile, it just plays continuously.
The one thing we didn’t figure out is that the bottom of the report we never figured out how to link back to our other stories. It’s a beautiful package, but it’s self contained. If we do it again, I would like to reference or link back to some of our previous reporting. That would have made it a richer experience. But that was beyond what we could do technically.
This came out of a discussion at the AAPB conference. I was talking to some of the other editors of the Crain’s city publications, telling them what we were experimenting with. And one of them said, “Have you thought about doing something with audio?” And at that point, we hadn’t. But we had done some cool things with audio in the fall. So the narration was added at almost the last minute, about three weeks out from publication. But it was relatively easy to do.
We’ve got a decent studio here and people who understand audio and video. So the voices are me and Ann Dwyer, who is our deputy managing editor. And both of us have done radio scripts over the years.
This isn’t written like a traditional company story with CEO quotes and analyst projections. How hard was that to avoid?
Without speaking too much for John, it did a bit of pulling and tugging. But over the years John has talked with the CEOs, so he knows the company well, and he has talked with the analysts. So it’s not like he has written this off the top of his head. This is based on years of reporting, including from this winter when Motorola tried to sell itself.
Where did you find the illustrators?
Jason found the cartoonists.
What has been the reaction?
The traffic to this report was just huge over the weekend. We were having throughout the weekend hundreds of people reading this thing at any moment. It’s well in six figures for page views.
This thing is being shared extraordinarily on Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin. It really has been embraced by social media. A quarter of all of our page views are on that story, and Facebook accounts for a quarter of the referrals. And the engagement times are extraordinary. Most stories engagement times are 30 seconds, give or take. This is averaging two to three to four times that. It’s gratifying to see that people are clicking on it.
Will you do it again?
Of course. If we had the right topic. It really has to be kind of a narrative. You could do a profile this way. But we’d be hard pressed to do every story this way, and I wouldn’t want to do our weekly or daily stories this way.
This works because it’s something you seldom see.