by Ron Samul
In 2013, the New York Times unveiled Tomato Can Blues by Mary Pilon and illustrated by Attila Futaki. This illustrated reportage brought out the best of an old publishing media (newspapers) and merged the new technology of web, journalism, and art to make an interactive piece that not only connects to readers, but also stylizes the time and the complexity of the story. In this emerging mainstream piece, Mary Pilon, the writer of the article discussed the significance of the project and how they struggled to make it work outside of the traditional world of long form journalism. Pilon explains,“Tomato Can Blues, was an exercise in figuring out how to keep readers hooked while still being factual. I think journalists can learn a lot from screenwriters and novelists about how to arc facts, which was a huge task here”. The shift in turning factual print news into creative visuals inspires an innovative method of story production – akin to the way we think about words and images on screens and in the functionally of web design. When big news media like the New York Times produces journalism that fits into the graphic medium high caliber illustrators and storytellers, readers can’t help but noticed that a visual shift is coming. But while the visual shift will create collaboration opportunities, it could add confusion for the reader. In some cases, it was hard to tell if Tomatoes Can Blues was in fact journalism or graphic novel. While there were hundreds of hours of work and interviewing involved, it was seamlessly enveloped into the production and therefore it felt like readers were experiencing a story that only fiction could create. Because multimedia storytelling such as Tomato Can Blues is only in its infancy, it is not just appropriate to be lacking the proper terminology, but also to have questions such as the one in a tweet by Marc Lacey, of The New York Times associate managing editor, who asked: ‘Graphic novel? Reported article?’”.
Tomato Can Blues read like fiction, looked like a graphic novel, and told a story that was complex and very real. Should the reader who looks at something like Tomatoes Can Blues have some kind of indicator to what they are getting into. The line between fact based reportage and fictional storytelling has blurred with the co-mingling of different narratological devices in fiction, nonfiction, reportage, and visual art. In The Art of Creative Nonfiction, Lee Gutkind explains that “the closer to the truth fiction is, the closer to what might be perceived as possible, the more it will impact upon the reading audience. And the more that writing affects readers, the more popular it will become. It is an unyielding circle. To touch and affect readers, fiction must ring true. Nonfiction, conversely, must not only ring true, it must be true” (9). Perhaps that is why this piece in the New York Times didn’t make sense. It was polished, it was produced, it had an element of illustration, and it even had an interface element that accented the images as the reader moved through the text. It read like fiction in a high end literary journal, with the teeth of a true crime story that is hard to get a handle on. The difference between journalism and fiction is often how true stories don’t have all the elements that fiction can provide, facts and real stories don’t have that underpinning of irony or morality, but in this case – it did feel like fiction (a story with a refined truth) and it brought about the question of where does this development go and how do we make an explicit agreement with the reader that what they are seeing and experiencing is fact and should be considered an extended piece of journalistic multimedia? Why do we need this agreement? And should the form and placement of the piece be enough to define its place in the media? The answers will come as terminology, connections, and collaborations define what exactly creators want from stories like this.