Why The Graphic Novel Will Save Business Journalism

PSFK chats with the author of The Zen of Steve Jobs on how even journalism needs to innovate to stay relevant.

Caleb Melby recently graduated and joined Forbes Magazine. As an intern, he took on the responsibility of writing The Zen of Steve Jobs, which we wrote about last month.

The big take away point is the fact that journalism remains an industry in crisis. Caleb believes that focusing on newer ways of storytelling (i.e. interactive maps, unique story ideas) and finding the human element (i.e business leaders, relationships within a particular industry) are the keys to saving journalism. The graphic novel therefore, is one form that can easily be leveraged to achieve this.

Tell us about how the project came together?

When I first arrived in June to see the editor for the project, Bruce, he had just had lunch with Jesse Thomas, who’s the founder of Jess3, a data visualization and design agency based out of DC. Thomas pitched the idea to Bruce that they should do a story about Steve Jobs doing design in Japan. And do it graphically, a graphic novel, which is pretty far out left field for what Forbes has done. I was blessed with the opportunity to try to write it because I don’t think it was a guarantee that the project was going to happen.

So very early on I started researching and reporting. I talked to a lot of Buddhist priests who are Dharma heirs of Kobun Chino Otogawa, who’s the other main character in the book along side Steve Jobs. And I found out that Steve didn’t really learn design or Buddhism in Japan, he did it right here in California. And after writing a few scenes, in the form of a movie script actually–because I had no idea how to sketch out a graphic novel at the time–Bruce liked what it said and what we had for our reportorial foundation, which was important since we wanted it to be grounded in reality.

How does the creation of this graphic novel reflect on the Forbes brand?

People understand that Forbes has a history of being very minutia and facts oriented. Having that as a foundation to build on and tell stories, they become all the more richer.

But Journalism as an industry is in a state of crisis. It has been for a good 3-4 years, and we have new leadership here in Forbes under Lewis D’vorkin who’s been spearheading our New NewsRoom Initiative and he actually does a blog post on that at the beginning of every week about what we’re doing to stay true to being innovative and progressive in how we convey business news. We’re basically making sure that we’re using all the tools at our disposal to deliver quality news. We’ve taken on a contributor model, so we’re able to bring in other experts into our content.

It’s also a nerve-wrecking time for Journalism, but it’s exciting that you can pitch a project like this because you’re looking for all possible answers because ears are eager to listen. And so, despite being a graphic novel, it’s very much grounded in and in-tune with the Forbes brand. It’s telling the story of a great business leader, telling it in a way that is engaging.

Tell us more about the crisis in Journalism and how publications are innovating.

The written word is still incredibly powerful. I recently read this story called The Things That Carried Him which is a story of a soldier’s body on its way back from Iraq and literally all the places the body goes. Another amazing story was Why Best Buy is Going Out of Business… Gradually where we simply tell the stories of people that go to Best Buy and have miserable experiences. Best Buy offers you ‘the help’ in your purchase decision-making and if the help is not helpful, then the brick and mortar model doesn’t serve any purpose. Another amazing written piece was The Desert Challenge; we collected a bunch of luxury outdoor gear and sent Jon to the middle of the desert and made him survive and gave him tasks like ‘prepare a luxury meal for two’. He was naturally taking pictures and blogging about the experience and corresponding with Mike Noer, another great editor at Forbes.

My colleague Jon Bruner did an interactive map showing migration patterns in the USA by county. The interactive map or an online video have key things in common with the graphic novel and what Forbes is about, you need to have a really engaging, original story. In a world where the anyone can report on anything and all the world can read it, it no longer works to rehash other people’s stories. You have to be original constantly.

The key is connecting innovation to the human and emotional, which tends to spotlight the individual. Another example is when we published the experience of Economics professor, Clayton Christensen, going through the healthcare system. He studied innovation as an academic and he was writing about the experience of going through the inefficiencies first-hand.

Do you see any connection between your work and Joe Sacco’s? Since he also is a reporter that conveys his writing on Kosovo and Palestine through graphic novels.

The graphic novel worked well for us for one reason in particular. What you’ll find behind Joe Sacco’s work is a medium that’s really rich in storytelling and allows you to do a lot of different things with it as a Journalist.

Ours wasn’t a perfect piece of Journalism; it was based on reportage, but we had to elaborate, so it allowed for a nice disconnect from reality where we’re not saying “here’s a hard-hitting feature.” My story was very verbose piece initially, but then we saw that that wasn’t in-tune with Steve Jobs, Buddhism, or the graphic novel format. So taking a story and putting it into the graphic novel format, if it’s something complex, like say Joe’s work, it works really well because it makes it feel more immediate cause there’s visuals and it’s innately more engaging than a block of text would be.

What have been some of your favorite responses to your work?

Some of my favorite responses have been about just the feeling it invokes. Throughout the narrative it builds to this point where you’re getting this groundswell of happiness, as they’re becoming friends, and then you’re left deflated in the end as the friendship falls apart. There’s been some pretty depressing reviews on Amazon because they just couldn’t take the heaviness with them. I found that to be, in its own right, a positive review. It touched someone in an emotional way that was very immediate.

We want people to take back a complex understanding of Steve Jobs because that plays into the complex identity that we don’t always get when you’re reading some news brief about a Mac World show. It certainly had an emotional impact on people that we didn’t really plan for.

Thanks Caleb!

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