Visual Storytelling in Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang

In 2001 Guy Delisle, a French-Canadian cartoonist, was sent to the cloistered North Korean capital of Pyongyang to act as liaison between the French production company he worked for and the animation studio to which they outsourced their latest project. Delisle wrote a graphic novel chronicling his escapades in the sequestered city entitled Pyongyang, which was published in 2004. As a humble, non-threatening cartoonist, Delisle did not see the same suspicious side-stepping most journalists experience while trying to get answers in North Korea.


The average journalist’s experience in Pyongyang according to Delisle (page 122)

Delisle’s graphic novel is an example of a relatively new genre of journalism called comics journalism, which aims to tell well-researched non-fiction in a comic format. Being a visual medium as well as a textual one, comics offer a unique news experience for readers, and Delisle uses that visual aspect to great effect in Pyongyang.

A chart detailing the problems NGOs face in North Korea

A chart detailing the problems NGOs face in North Korea

Throughout the comic, Delisle uses drawings and charts to explain North Korean customs and history. These charts comprise the bulk of what can be considered journalism in the comic and are helpful in condensing several decades of tradition and history onto a single page or less. Oftentimes these pages are used to show the reader how the regime rebuilt North Korea to its wishes.

The hallways of Delisle's hotel, referencing popular video game Doom

The hallways of Delisle’s hotel, referencing popular video game Doom

Pyongyang isn’t purely journalism, though; Delisle also uses the visual aspect to make comments and observations on the people and places he encounters while in North Korea. These usually come in the form of a visual joke or some amusing observation of Delisle’s that sheds light on the absurdities surrounding North Korea’s cult of personality.

Delisle walks in front of the Monument to the Korean Workers Party (page 97)

Delisle walks in front of the Monument to the Korean Workers Party (page 97)

Kim Il-sung's face plastered across a building at night

Kim Il-sung’s face plastered across a building at night

The amount of effort the North Korean regime expenses in order to maintain this cult of personality is confounding, a point which is also expressed in the comic’s visuals. Massive monuments dedicated to North Korean achievements have been built all over the country, despite its starved population and diminished resources. Delisle depicts many of these monuments in his graphic novel in single-page spreads, many of which focus on the imposing size of the monument itself. Other drawings focus on the emptiness of these monuments; empty hallways of the gargantuan hotel Delisle stayed at, only one floor of which, the floor for foreigners, had lighting. Though these monuments seem impressive because of their size and scope, they wind up being nothing more than hollow representations of the nation’s glory.

To some North Koreans these monuments represent the supposed strength of their nation; to the others it represents the power that can be unleashed upon them should they go against the regime; but to Delisle they are just another example of how isolation and propaganda can warp perspectives to the point of creating a civilization almost entirely alien to outsiders.



Q & A with Stacey Bersani

I had the opportunity to speak with former reporter and editor for the Asbury Park Press, and freelance writer, Stacey Bersani this weekend. Though she is no longer working in the industry, she has a wealth of advice for burgeoning journalists.

She has a communications degree with a journalism concentration from Marist College and an English minor. She worked for the Asbury Park Press for 8 years before freelancing for 7 years, which led to a job at the autonomous Middlesex County Improvement Authority. Currently, she works for the county.

The following has been paraphrased from our phone conversation.

What was your first job in journalism after leaving college?
My first journalism job was a reporter at the Asbury Park Press. I had the summer between junior and senior year of college interning for the newspaper.

How was it?
The job was a “great way to get my feet wet.” Most journalists start out on the police beat looking at reports. In one’s first journalism job, it’s good to start making contacts in each town that you work in.

What tips do you have for reporters?
“It’s good if you really want to learn about a wide array of topics and subjects.” Being a reporter provides you with this opportunity. You have to know your topic very well, “you have to understand all that, and then make other people understand it.” That is a reporter’s job. “When you get that, you can take it in any direction.”

Do you have any advice for those who want to freelance?
“You’ve got to have discipline. You’ve got to be able to sit down and not procrastinate.” Freelancers have to follow deadlines more strictly than normal reporters since they aren’t regularly employed by the paper they’re writing for. They have to be self-motivated to find work.

What advice do you have for editors?
“Editing is a whole different way of looking at things.” You shouldn’t want to totally re-write someone’s piece, it’s their name on the byline after all. You should work to make the piece better instead. “I really like that aspect of it. Make it the best it could possibly be.”

The rest of Mrs. Bersani’s answers were taken from e-mail.

We discussed freelancers today in class and my professor said they can’t really turn down a writing gig. Do you find this to be true?
Don’t turn down a job if you can’t afford to. Freelancing is a unique career path that relies not only your ability to write well and on deadline, but also to forge and maintain relationships with those who will hire you. Be open to writing pieces for newspapers and magazines. In my time as a freelancer, I wrote these, but also copy for radio ads and brochures and annual report material. You must never procrastinate.

How does one get a job in journalism?
First, write for every newspaper or magazine at the high school and college level that you can. Send Op-Ed or Letters to the Editor into local papers. Take as many journalism and communications courses as you can. Write a letter around January or February of your school year to various newspapers, radio stations, television stations and magazines asking for summer internship opportunities. This is how I wound up with a summer internship between my junior and senior year of college with the Asbury Park Press, which at the time was the state’s second largest paper and well known for its investigative journalism. I also took advantage of my AP credits from high school and took summer classes, so that in my senior year of college, I was able to perform two internships: one in the public relations office of a local hospital (where I learned design and interviewing techniques) and one with a local newspaper where of course, I was able to add to my clips files. With all the experience, I was hired right out of college by the Asbury Park Press.

How can one prepare for work as reporter/editor/freelancer?
Again: write, write, write. Take on assignments of various lengths and topics. Identify people within your school or at an internship who can act as a mentor, giving you not only the academic education you need, but the soft skills, like interview techniques, how to meet deadlines, how to prioritize, how to ask difficult questions.

Is there any advice you have for conducting an interview?
I always started with getting to know the person a little before getting into the questions I needed to write my story. It puts you both at ease. Ask how to spell their full name (including middle initial if they use one). One of the worst things you could ever do is spell a subject’s name wrong. You instantly lose credibility. Ask the date of their birth (so you don’t have to ask how old they are). Get a feel for the person behind the story. Share a little about yourself. Then you can begin by asking questions for your story. Most importantly, remember this is a conversation and it may veer in one direction or another. That is fine, as long as you get what you went there for. Always get their contact information and let them know that, as you develop your story, you may be calling them back for follow-up questions. If you make an appointment to meet them in person, be on time. No excuses.

I understand you are not working in journalism right now. Can you specify what your current job is and what it entails?
I am currently the Director of the Office of Communication for Middlesex County, which has more than 815,000 residents. I work closely with the Board of Chosen Freeholders and the County Administrator to ensure that the County’s mission and message are relayed to our citizens. My primary job is to ensure that the people of Middlesex County are kept informed of the programs, services and facilities available to them and to oversee emergency notifications and alerts when necessary. I, along with my staff, accomplish this through conducting interviews, writing stories for publication, writing press releases, coordinating events and interviews with public officials, taking photos, editing all brochures, newsletters, posters, columns, etc. that are issued by the County. I oversee the content of the County’s new Intranet site, an internal website for the County’s employees that keeps them up-to-date with policies, procedures, events, announcements and the like. I also am the project manager for the County’s new, dynamic and user-friendly website, which is to debut later this year. I write speeches, answer calls from the media, coordinate events and media coverage.

I only got a little bit of what was said on the phone. Could you go over again any general advice I may have missed?
To be a successful writer or editor, it’s always best to practice. Write often. Mix hard news with feature writing. Use imagery, alliteration and other tools to hone your skills. Most importantly, never put out a product of which you are not proud. We are often our own worst critics, but when it comes to writing, that is a good thing.

My favorite “job” to this day is editing. I personally love working to make something better. Oftentimes, it means working one-on-one with the author of a piece to mold the story into its best possible form. I continue to do that, but more often, I find myself editing brochure ad copy and design. Unless the ad or the brochure gets your message across, it isn’t doing its job, no matter how cool, pretty or eye-catching it appears on first blush.

The Collapse of Thunderdome

In 2012 Digital First Media (DFM), the company that managed both Journal Register Company and MediaNews Group until the two were merged under DFM in 2013, launched Project Thunderdome; an ambitious effort to establish something of an internal wire service among the company’s papers that would provide centralized content to DFM’s 75 newspapers.

The project was conceived as a way of catapulting DFM papers into the Digital Age. One of Digital First Media’s goals, oddly enough, is to put “digital first” when creating content. DFM CEO John Paton has made a name for himself by ardently supporting this viewpoint.

The company had lofty expectations for the project: “Thunderdome is central to Digital First Media’s future and will fuel the company’s growth,” reads the Project’s “About” page. Jon Cooper, Vice President of the Journal Register Company, told the Nieman Journalism Lab in 2011 that major goals of the project included “providing leadership to our journalists” and that Thunderdome was about “working with our communities — our physical, geographic communities, but also our digital communities.”

Earlier this month after two years of service, the project was dismantled, the primary reason for the closing being money. DFM was looking to cut $100 million in costs and Project Thunderdome’s cancelling saved $5 million per year. While Thunderdome and DFM’s digital-centric approach to journalism resulted in increased online ad revenue for the company, this did not offset the company’s print revenue loss, indicating how the success of digital news is often linked to the success of that company’s print news.

Some journalists who were a part of the project were confused by it. According to another article by the Nieman Journalism Lab earlier this month, some local reporters felt the traffic to Thunderdome pieces was unremarkable. They also felt local newspapers should have a focus on local news and that the nation-focused articles Thunderdome churned out took away from that.

Chris O’Brien, formerly of the San Jose Mercury Sun, commented on that same article, saying that “it’s been less than clear to me what Thunderdome was and what DFM was trying to do in general.” O’Brien attributes this confusion to the way his paper was run. The Mercury Sun was a part of Bay Area News Group which, in turn, was a part of MediaNews Group; when it came down to running the paper, some decisions were made by one group and others made by the other one. With the inclusion of DFM in 2011, a third group now had hearsay in the papers’ direction. In his comment, O’Brien says that these groups were “not always in sync,” which led to once simple matters becoming complicated. He offers this anecdote:

“I was part of a group at the Merc trying to relaunch our tech blog in 2012. The blog, started locally, had been moved to a corporate server in Denver. It took months for someone to give us a password to access the blog. Then more weeks to have it moved back to a local server so we could update the template and re-launch it. What I thought would take a few days, took 8 months.”

O’Brien thinks much of the confusion could have been adverted if Digital First Media and MediaNews Group had merged earlier as opposed to trying to keep the two separate.

So, what has Thunderdome accomplished?

DFM had a taste of what the project would be like in July 2012, before a Thunderdome staff even existed, when Thunderdome editor Robyn Tomlin used Denver Post material on the Aurora shootings in other papers. Tomlin had the Post create a Google Doc full of information on the shooting which was thus sent to other DFM papers. This is one of the first successes of the project. O’Brien also notes in the same comment that I mentioned above that DFM’s prioritization of digital journalism made many local managers who once “only talked about print” begin to take heed of digital journalism as well. This he views as a positive impact of DFM management. As the project progressed, the Thunderdome team produced many promising pieces like Firearms in the Family, Decoding the Kennedy Assassination, and an interactive March Madness Bracket Advisor. This video also highlights some of the project’s other creations as well. John Paton’s blog says that the company learned a lot about “data journalism, video production, website and mobile developments” from Thunderdome as well.

Moving forward, Thunderdome’s duties will likely be handed to local journalists while those stationed at Thunderdome’s headquarters in New York City will lose their jobs. The Nieman article dated April 2nd also says to “expect regional auctions of DFM properties” though none have yet appeared on the market.

Former DFM editor-in-chief Jim Brady says Thunderdome’s demise is the latest example of companies withdrawing their support on an experimental digital product because the company was going through tough times. Brady was also a part of, a failed Washington, D.C. venture that focused on using social media journalism. Brady says newspapers have to “seesaw resources” between print and digital, and that all of these failures are a product of experimentation with that seesaw. While Thunderdome’s downfall will likely deter some newspapers from experimenting in digital journalism further, such experimentation is necessary for newspapers to find the proper balance on this seesaw.

The latest of these journalistic experiments comes from Advance Publications, publisher of The Star-Ledger, The Times of Trenton, The Jersey Journal, and Staten Island Advance in the form of the NJ Advance Media, which was prophetically announced a week before Thunderdome’s collapse. The new company aims to provide centralized content, advertising, and marketing services to the Advance’s different newspapers.

Sound familiar?

Four obvious things I learned about interviews

After writing for The Signal this year, I realized some very simple things about interviews that I probably should have realized in hindsight. Here are four of them:

1. Bring a recorder.

It took me until my third interview to think to bring a recorder to one. Previously I used a notebook and pen but ran into problems getting direct quotes; my hand just can’t seem to move as fast as some people’s mouths. I’d always find myself missing the most interesting tidbits being said because I was writing down something else.

2. Do research beforehand.

You shouldn’t go into an interview blind. Some sort of research on the person you are interviewing, the field they’re in, or the topic of discussion could be beneficial to your interview. This insures that your interviewee doesn’t have to waste time explaining things and you can get right to the nitty-gritty. Any sort of knowledge of your subject’s field or prior work can “break the ice”, so to speak, and open up to you a bit more.

3. E-mail interviews: convenient but lacking in areas.

Most of my interviews have been conducted through e-mail. This I found to be beneficial to me at first; several times this year I found myself conducting two to three e-mails at the same time. But I soon realized the catch. E-mail interviews take an incredible amount of time; you might be inconveniencing both yourself and your subject in that manner. The interviewee might also feel a peculiar disconnect with you if the interview is conducted through such an impersonal medium.

4. Try to build off of what your interviewee said last.

This has multiple purposes. I noticed my best interviews, or the ones that garnered the most useful bits of information, flowed nicely between question and answer and vice versa. Secondly, connecting something said by the person you’re interviewing with some sort of personal anecdote or knowledgeable observation can close the gap between you and your interview subject.

Comments on Literary Journalism

Last semester I had the opportunity to attend a very interesting presentation on Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which chronicles the true story of the murder of the Clutter family in a sleepy Kansas town and is one of the earliest examples of literary journalism to be published. It’s an interesting idea, literary journalism, if only because it shouldn’t work.

The two writing styles that meet to form literary journalism have very distinct and opposing goals. A literary work is solely the creation of the author. All the details within such a work are conceived within the author’s brain and based upon that author’s world view, creating a very distinct bias. Although the definition of “literature” varies from person to person, it more often than not uses complicated and challenging language to make its point. Meaning in well-written literature is often obscured, allowing the reader to dissect the work’s passages and perhaps write a dissertation on his or her findings. Literature is not very reader-friendly.

Journalistic stories, on the other hand, cannot be imagined out of thin air like the plot to a novel (such behavior is generally frowned upon in the world of journalism). Telling a good news story means getting the message across in the most efficient way possible to the largest number of people possible, which goes against literature’s habit of obscuring the message to the point that there exist several different interpretations of a single scene. Journalists can’t do that. They need to make sure just one message gets across to everybody that reads the story. And on top of that, the message must be objective and unbiased.

It’s hard to see why something like “literary journalism” can exist when its two components are so opposite. In fact, Capote’s novel runs into problems for this very reason. The characters in the novel have real-life counterparts, so should Capote objectively portray these people’s behaviors and personalities like any good journalist would do, or should he re-work his “characters” until they fit within the context of the narrative, like any good author would do? Capote was criticized for the liberties he took in his work, one of the most notable examples being his portrayal of Perry Smith, one of the murderers and an eventual friend of Capote.

So, when writing a piece of literary journalism, how objective should one be?

Well, that all depends on both the writer and his or her intent. Capote became interested in the story of the Clutter murders, not because of the story itself, but because of the ideas he saw behind the story. To Capote, the Clutter murders represented the meeting of two sides of America; the criminal and the typical middle class family, and the horror that results from such a collision. Because Capote became more interested in these themes he perceived, he leaned towards the literary side of things by re-working certain events and “characters” to fit his perspective. If someone is more interested in simply getting the story out there, then he or she would lean towards the journalism side of things by giving objective facts rather than trying to purvey certain themes.

The great thing about this is, no matter what side you choose, if you write well you’re bound to be praised by either journalists or literature critics.