In its first issue, dated 1842, The Illustrated London News covered topics such as the US presidential election, the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, a boat accident in Canada.
The magazine went down in history as the world's first illustrated weekly, as articles were accompanied by one or more beautiful black and white illustrations printed on paper through the wood engraving technique.
During its 161-year existence – the magazine eventually shut down in 2003 – The Illustrated London News inspired other publishers to experiment on the intersection between comics and journalism. In recent years, some startups tried to modernize that intersection, twinning news and illustrations inside new, different frameworks, such as french quarterly La Revue Dessinée and Symbolia, a now-defunct experimental iPad/Kindle comics news magazine.
The latest addition to the list is an Italian project, Graphic News, launched less than three months ago in Bologna. Aiming to be a big step forward for the digitisation process of graphic journalism, the website has an Italian version and an English one that is still in beta.Don't draw your story the same way you do when you're publishing on paper. Think instead that it will be read on a mobile devicePietro Scarnera, Graphic News
Graphic News describes itself as "the first digital native graphic journalism portal".
So far, Graphic News has been publishing one comic a week, mostly in-depth stories with a narrative approach. 'Poor Venuses' is a street reportage about the life of sex workers in Bologna, 'Capuling' tells the story and impact of the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, two years after they sparked.
Behind Graphic News is a team of four: Michele Barbolini, David Biagioni, Federico Mazzoleni and Pietro Scarnera, all between 31 and 36 years old. Two of them are illustrators, one is a journalist. They met at Komikazen, a festival held every year in Ravenna that delves deeper on comics focused on reality.
"We started sharing our ideas, and we came up with the decision to build a comics journalism website," explained Scarnera.
"We all are interested in the news and we wanted to explore new ways to tell them."
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Graphic News has been financed through Culturability, a grant bestowed upon the Unipolis Foundation, focussing on social innovation.
"Comics is a language as much as cinema, theatre, or literature are," said Scarnera, who worked as a reporter for 5 years in the Italian news agency Redattore Sociale.
"When it is used to describe reality, especially with a journalistic goal, comics give a different point of view about what is happening."
In one of his stories, 'Mediterraneo', Scarnera illustrated the never ending tragedies of migrants who died while making their way to Europe. Every boat on the map indicates a fatal event that occurred at sea since 2013. As with all stories published on Graphic News, 'Mediterraneo' also includes links that allow readers to go deeper into the topic.
From a technological point of view, the real challenge for Graphic News is finding a way to make their stories easily readable on smaller devices. To achieve the goal, Scarnera and his colleagues experiment with two different layouts: slide and scroll. At the same time, the sizes of the illustrations follow the needs and shapes imposed by smartphone and tablet screens.
"The advice we give our contributors is this: don't draw your story the same way you do when you're publishing on paper. Think instead that it will be read on a mobile device," Scarnera said.One of the things I like most about comics is their narrative delicacyPietro Scarnera, Graphic News
He argued the layouts used by Graphic News are "simple but effective", both on desktop and on mobile, and they are increasingly experimenting as the project advances.
"In the future we'll test some more innovative features, such as animations, GIFs and embeddable stories, but our priority will always be the readability of the content."
Still in its quest for a long-term business model, Graphic News is one of the projects of Pequod, a newly-established cooperative that works as a communication agency for brands and other clients.
The talented contributors, very young on average, are now being paid through the assignment of some of these works.
"Our goal, though, is to collect a budget to pay them for the stories they contribute with," said Scarnera.
Graphic News’ newsroom still deals with editing, fact-checking and data analysis, even when the ideas come from the contributors, to make sure all the stories meet a high journalistic standard.
"We are now opening our doors to new contributors, in Italy and abroad, and we're also contacting some well-known graphic novelists," said Scarnera.
Graphic News seems to have a clear mission: to make comics journalism more digital than ever, without letting go the distinctive traits that belong to the medium.
"One of the things I like most about comics is their narrative delicacy," Scarnera said.
"When you depict violence, suffering or war in comics, realism is not mandatory. On the contrary, we often have a better outcome when we don't draw every detail."