How telling stories in sketches is good for business

Show menu

Graphic journalism is a dynamic way to connect with your audience – and it's been around a lot longer than you might think.

Nola James

I was tinkering around the internet the other afternoon and I saw a headline link to a story about 16-ounce beer cans in the business section of The New York Times

(As a side note, 16 ounces is equivalent to just under 480 millilitres. If you’re talking about cans of beer, that’s a lot.)

I was expecting to spend maybe a minute or two reading this story before I returned to some very important copywriting work, but something else happened.

I read the article. Twice. Then I emailed it to three friends. Then I went to the website of the company that made the beer and spent 10 minutes looking at the products they sell. And after all this I put the story on LinkedIn.

That sounds like highly unusual behaviour

It is! So why did I do all these things? Because the information was presented in an unconventional way. In place of black text on negative space was a series of words and drawn images that unfurled down the screen as I read.

This article was holding my attention not only because I was engaged in the story, but because I was entertained by the vehicle of delivery. Known as graphic or comic journalism, the “how” was just as important, if not more, than the “what”. 

An articles in her workspace drawing a picture

Real life examples that are not about beer

The history of graphic journalism (unsurprisingly) predates the internet. The Illustrated London News, launched in 1842, was the world’s first illustrated weekly news magazine. Its creator, Herber Ingram, was a newsagent. He noticed that magazines and newspapers with pictures sold more copies, so he created a magazine that would feature images in every edition – very rare for the time. By 1863 he was selling 300,000 copies a week (I know many a managing editor who would kill for those circulation figures today) and had inspired many rival publications.

The US market has been a pioneering force in the last 10 years, helped along by sheer scale, no doubt; something that Australian readers have been enjoying more of thanks to the 2017 launch of The New York Times’ Australia bureau.

“It creates an element of surprise”, says Damien Cave, Australia bureau chief. “It’s a blank canvas ... there are a million ways [the story] could go, and the reader doesn’t know what’s coming next.”

Cave says graphic journalism fosters an emotional connection between the reader and the story, which leads to higher engagement that’s better measured by analysing user enjoyment over click rates. “I think it makes a story more memorable.”

A seminal piece for the Australia bureau of The New York Times was the Love/Loathe Australia interactive. Readers were asked to share what they love and loathe about this country. “We received hundreds of responses,” says Cave, “and rather than list them we decided to illustrate them.”

Ilya Milstein, an Italian-born artist who grew up in Melbourne, was commissioned to create an interactive cityscape based on their responses, which ranged from a herd of emus racing around a street corner to a nuclear family sitting down to share fish and chips.

Inviting readers to participate in creating their own content is an effective tool in building audience engagement in a new market (the Times only launched in Australia six months prior). Cave tells me that among Australians, it was one of the most popular and well-read pieces of the year.

But it hasn’t all been jobs and growth for comics

The first iPad publication dedicated to graphic journalism was released in 2012. The now defunct publication, called Symbolia, featured news stories told in strip-style comics and digital illustrations accompanied by interactive elements like ambient sounds and spot animations.

Its founders raised the funds to start the female-focused publication through grants from the McCormick’s New Media Women Entrepreneurs Initiative and the International Women’s Media Foundation and charged $2.99 an issue.

The magazine published hundreds of pages of illustrated journalism on topics ranging from the environmental devastation of California’s Salton Sea to a spotlight on Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq, before its unfortunate closure mid-2015 due to declining revenue.

Despite its untimely departure, Symbolia was a shining example of effective nonfiction storytelling using a graphic medium – perhaps they were simply before their time. Obviously, they didn’t make enough money, but it’s worth considering if graphic journalism has a place in custom publishing, which is also in the business of telling true stories, albeit with far less reliance on paid subscribers.

How brands can use graphic journalism to tell their own stories

Meet shop owner Julie Gaines. Julie is a designer who runs a kitchenware store in New York City called Fishs Eddy and, with the help of her illustrator son, recently released a graphic novel called Minding the Store, detailing the history of their business that the Financial Times has called “the anti-business book”.

“Avoiding the trap of coming off as an extended advertisement, this tribute pulls off an engaging narrative on the ups and downs of following dreams,” said Publishers Weekly.

Architectural Digest said “[this] book is as personality-filled, humorous, and distinctively New York as Fishs Eddy itself.” 

Not bad for a book that had only been on the market for two weeks at the time of review and, quality storytelling aside, is an excellent public relations tool for her business.  

Be it news, narrative nonfiction or brand-speak, readers want to be entertained and they want to be told the truth. Graphics give publishers a platform that doesn’t have to compromise journalistic integrity to be engaging, and Gaines’ book is a success story other brands ought to be inspired by.
A comic book strip featuring Fishs Eddy

Artists worth watching

Next time you’re kicking around on the internet take a look at these websites (and if you do so with a 16-ounce can of beer in your hand there will be no judgement from me).

Ilya Milstein, the artist who created the Love/Loathe piece discussed above, now lives in New York. He draws for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Monocle and Vice.

Sam Walman is a comics journalist, political cartoonist and editor based in Melbourne. His work has appeared in the Guardian, SBS and the ABC.

UK-based T.S. Abe’s ultra-fine-point sketches have been used to illustrate stories for Nike, Amazon, Elle magazine and The New York Times.

Maltese-American artist and reporter Joe Sacco is perhaps the world’s best known graphics journalist. A still highly relevant collection of his war reporting was published by Penguin in 2012. 

Nola James, editor

Love/Loathe Australia illustration appears with the permission of artist Ilya Milstein and The New York Times. 
Minding the Store illustration appears with the permission of artist Ben Lenovitz and Algonquin Books. 

Don't miss our monthly content marketing insights. Subscribe to The Lead.