The art of graphic journalism: lessons from the Washington Post's 'Searching for Maura' project
KC Schaper is a projects editor who leads innovative cross-platform storytelling and strategy at the Washington Post. She was the editor of the project Searching for Maura, a moving illustrated story that traces the missing remains of a woman from the Philippines taken to the US for the World’s Fair in 1904. The project was reported by Claire Healy and Nicole Dungca and illustrated by Filipino artist Ren Galeno. Andrew Ba Tran, Nate Jones and our alumna Regine Cabato contributed to the reporting of the piece.
Searching for Maura was published as an immersive comic and an animated video. It was also translated into Tagalog, and can be purchased in book form in both languages. Our guest KC Schaper will speak about the project and explain how it was reported and produced.
Before joining the Washington Post, Schaper worked as a team leader for Gannett at the USA Today Network Design Center, where she managed two design teams and oversaw multimedia presentations across 14 large-market daily publications. Before entering the news industry she worked as a public relations consultant, press writer, and campaigns manager for nonprofits in Southern California. She's been won several awards from the Society for News Design in the last few years.
Watch KC's seminar
Four lessons from KC’s talk and the discussion
1. Think about the audience: Presenting the story of Maura in illustrated form was not a coincidence. The team at the Washington Post wanted to report this story for a global audience, rather than an American one, and wanted to attract both younger and older audiences. The project’s illustrated nature allowed them to maximise their reach and their impact. "My best advice would be to really think about the audience and the type of story that you're telling,” says Schaper. “Think about the possible impact and then how do you reach the audiences that you actually hope to reach."
Because many in the Philippines rely on the video format to get their news, they decided to also create a video format of the story as well as translating it into Filipino. "We rarely translate stories at the Washington Post, but it was very important for us to translate this story so that those whose previous generations were directly affected were able to read and absorb this story in their mother tongue," says Schaper.
2. Find the right team: Schaper says that for a project like this which takes a lot of resources and people, you have to find the right team of people. She says that while this story could have been told in a traditional way, there was a vision to make it bigger than that. “You need to have a little bit of a vision and then I'll allow others to join that vision with you,” she says.
The team consisted of researchers, illustrators, editors, and photographers so it not only required an enormous amount of coordination, but trust and freedom “that allowed people to tap into their own creativity and their own, you know, processes and their own passions.”
A case for comics journalism: @washingtonpost & @risj_oxford discuss why it's worth our while to do journalism as graphics - & that we need to see the fact that comics seem way more personal than 'classic' journalism as a good thing. @goodhannah7 & KC Schaper. #comicsjournalism pic.twitter.com/1uZ2uDNHg1— Mette Stentoft (@Mettestentoft) October 11, 2023
3. Understand the power of illustrated journalism: The team decided to publish it in illustrated form. When we polled our journalism fellows and our alumni to ask them if they thought you could tell a journalistic story in comic book, 30% of them said no.
Hannah Good, a comics journalist at the Washington Post, said that illustrated journalism makes stories more personal and creates an intimacy with readers. “Comics and the medium of illustrated journalism are not a gimmick,” said Good. “Comics have a unique and singular way of telling stories that connects to people's deep emotions, the way that you have to distil the human face down to its barest essentials.”
4. Be patient: This is the first time the Washington Post did an investigation fully illustrated like this which was a long production process. One of the main things the team had to learn throughout the process was scheduling and prioritisation in order to make the deadline.
“We didn't know that we had to be done with certain things at a certain time in order to make our deadline,” says Schaper. “Ultimately, we had to also work with [other people’s] schedule because in a newsroom like this, it is often not the only thing that an individual is working on.”
The bottom line
Illustrated journalism can be a creative and personal format to tell in-depth stories and investigations.The Searching for Maura team had to overcome a lot of coordinating and logistical hurdles as a story of such magnitude requires a myriad of talent to make it happen. Schaper, who was the editor of the illustrated project, recommends finding the right team of people and understanding if an illustrated story is the right format to reach the audience you want to reach and to have your desired impact.