Breaking into Comics Journalism

SusieJourno-1 copyAs a child Susie Cagle loved to draw, scribbling little comic books and cartoons here and there. A talent for drawing ran in the family – her father was an editorial cartoonist. But to her, these illustrations were a hobby – she didn’t want to follow in her father’s professional footsteps. She decided that she wanted to be a reporter instead and enrolled at the Columbia Journalism School to help launch her career.

She graduated in 2006 and moved to the Bay Area in hopes of finding some freelance writing gigs. Eventually, she got hired at San Francisco’s Curbed blog a week before the stock market crash of 2008. Two and a half months later, she was laid off and her career ambitions came to a halt again. She decided enough was enough; she had debts to pay and was desperate to find a new way to earn some money. She’d never considered pursuing her drawing hobby professionally, but figured that some of her non-fiction comics might work in a journalistic setting. (more…)

Granny Cart Productions

Lea Khayata and Elettra Fiumi met at Columbia Journalism School in 2011. They worked on their master’s project together and got along exceptionally well. When the school year ended and they started looking for jobs, they couldn’t find anything that suited them. “Everything was very particular: only research, or only shooting, or only editing, things like that. And the way we had learned things was to do everything from beginning to end,” explained Lea. So with a little encouragement from their teacher, they decided to take the jump and create their own production company: Granny Cart Productions.

In this video, they explain their work and how they put their company together.

(more…)

Behind the Prizes: Hollow

The impact of the social documentary “Hollow” is undeniable. But when Elaine McMillion Sheldon set out to capture the essence of a small town community in America through film, she had no idea how the final product would look. She only knew that she wanted to highlight the lives of people who came from areas of the country where the population had been decreasing over the last few decades. McDowell County, West Virginia, very near to where Sheldon grew up, is one of those places. (more…)

Behind the Prizes: A Short History of the Highrise


A Short History of the Highrise is an interactive documentary that “explores the 2,500-year global history of vertical living and the issue of social equality in an increasingly urbanized world.” It was produced by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) and the New York Times, and won First Prize at the 2014 World Press Photo Multimedia awards in the Interactive Documentary category. (more…)

Behind the Prizes: Silent Night

On March 11th, 2012, Staff Sergeant Robert Bales left his army base and allegedly killed 16 innocent civilians in the villages surrounding Kandahar, Afghanistan. While he was criminally tried in America, little has been heard from the villagers who witnessed the gruesome murders firsthand. Lela Ahmadzai, a German video and photojournalist who was born in Kabul, happened to be in Afghanistan when news of the massacre trickled out. She decided to go to Kandahar and record the firsthand accounts of those who saw their families massacred. In her multimedia piece, Silent Night, she uses photo, video and audio to showcase the stories of those directly affected by Bales’ actions. (more…)

BEHIND THE PRIZES – NSA FILES: DECODED

The second prize of the 2014 World Press Photo Multimedia Awards for interactive documentary went to The Guardian’s NSA Files: Decoded. To understand how the documentary took form, we spoke to Gabriel Dance, the lead interactive editor on the project. Dance is currently the managing editor for the Marshall Project, a non-profit investigative journalism startup focusing on crime and punishment in the U.S., previously he was the interactive editor for The Guardian in New York City, and before that he was at The New York Times. (more…)

Behind the Prizes: Swan Song

Swan Song

Rick Gershon and MediaStorm did not set out to make a feature length piece when they went to Houston. Gershon was there to shoot client work for Neighborhood Centers, but then he met the Greer family. Marilyn Greer, the 58-year-old matriarch of the family, had recently been diagnosed with dementia. Gershon recognized the opportunity to turn a shorter client piece into a longer story, Swan Song, which documents the struggle of two young daughters who have to make hard choices in the face of their mother’s debilitating disorder.  (more…)

Behind the Prizes: Staff Riding


“Staff Riding” is local slang for a dangerous sport: surfing the trains that wind through the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. Photojournalist Marco Casino took last year’s World Press Photo Award’s 1st Prize in Short Feature Multimedia with his film about the young men who ride the outsides of trains, and the toll it sometimes takes on them.

Shooting from the tops of trains and attempting to evade the police (staff riding is illegal), Casino shows the adrenaline-riddled highs and the tragic lows that staff riding brings to the townships in South Africa. Now, he hopes to turn the short into part of a long-term project about the metro train system in Johannesburg. (more…)

Cutting a Trailer

It takes a lot of time and money to make a documentary, especially when you are just starting out. It’s one thing to get the filming done but another to get your film into post-production. One of the first things you can do to draw attention to your film is to make a trailer that will start buzz about your film,  even while it’s still in production.

We spoke to our former staffer Adam Perez and his fellow CUJ alum Jan Hendrik Hinzel (both class of ’13) about making the trailer that’s helping them fundraise and bring interest to their film Who We Become. (more…)

Illustrating Privacy: behind the scenes with Comics journalism

Michael Keller, a member of the Interactive Multimedia team at Al Jazeera America, has created work with data visualizations, video, graphics and in print. When he decided he was interested in reporting on privacy and Big Data, he turned to a method he hadn’t used before: comics journalism. (more…)

“it’s about our world today, and what we are willing to sacrifice to maintain a lifestyle”

Mélanie Gouby didn’t expect to star in a documentary when she began reporting on the Congo, but the independent journalist from France found herself as a tour guide in the award-winning documentary Virunga.

The film is about Virunga National Park, the oldest and most biodiverse park on the African continent. The story revolves around four main characters,  including an ex-child soldier turned park ranger, a caretaker for orphan gorillas, a Belgian conservationist and journalist Mélanie Gouby.  As the film’s tagline says, “Virunga is the incredible true story of a group of brave people risking their lives to build a better in a part of Africa the world’s forgotten and a gripping exposé of the realities of life in the Congo.” (more…)

Anatomy of a Viral Video

Prior to entering journalism school, I interned for the digital department at an entertainment company in NYC. One main objective at this company was to create videos that had the potential to get lots of views, i.e. videos that would go “viral.” As long as the videos were entertaining and attracted lots of eyeballs, they were considered successful.

I began to understand what made these types of videos popular, but I wondered if the producers of videos that dealt with more serious topics followed the same guidelines. Was there someone in every newsroom video department saying things like, “Make that petty theft more entertaining, so it gets more views”?

There are some companies out there who are successful at getting more important stories to go viral – Mashable, BuzzFeed and YouTube are some of the better-known examples. In journalism school, we didn’t learn “the rules” of  producing viral news content. Do rules even exist?

(more…)

Four Steps to a Video Story

Last month, the Digital Media Associates– members of one of our fellowship programs at the Columbia Journalism school- produced the video above as a team. We wanted to share our process, because while it’s a short, straightforward story, the steps we took to produce the piece are the same steps we’d take to make a full-length documentary. We’ll walk you through the reporting, shooting, storyboarding and editing of a video that might be similar to the videos you’ll produce.

(more…)

“If you actually listen to people, they will talk to you.”

GIDEON’S ARMY, an award winning documentary that premiered at Sundance Film Festival and on HBO in 2013, follows the stories of three young public defenders who are part of a small group of idealistic lawyers in the Deep South.

The main characters work to challenge the assumptions that drive a criminal justice system strained to the breaking point.  They struggle against long hours, low pay and staggering caseloads; even the most committed often give up in their first year.

The director of Gideon’s Army, Dawn Porter, recently spoke at the Columbia Journalism School during Film Fridays. These are some highlights from the conversation, led by professor Betsy West.

(more…)

Covering Protest in Ferguson: “I didn’t expect it to feel like war.”

Salima Koroma didn’t think her first first out-of-state assignment would be the historic protests over the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. She’s been producing video for Time’s online video team for just about two months, and last week they bought her a one-way ticket to Ferguson, Missouri.

Before starting at Time, she graduated from the documentary program at the Columbia University Journalism School, where she produced her own documentary, Bad Rap, and was a producer for NowThisNews. Columbia Visuals talked to Koroma about her experience producing video from Ferguson.

(more…)

Covering Protest in Ferguson: “These are people, not sound bites.”


Brent McDonald is a senior video journalist with the New York Times. He produced “Standoff in Ferguson,” a three-minute video for the Times that was published on August 14th, in the midst of protests over the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

McDonald has been producing video for over ten years, and has been with the Times since 2005. Columbia Visuals spoke with him by phone from Ferguson, Missouri, on August 15th. He told us about the mood there and gave us some details on his production methods. (more…)

“They wanted others to know about their experiences.”

Documentary film program alumni Jeng-Tyng Hong and Matthew Claiborne, both class of 2013, spent their time at Columbia Journalism School working on a short documentary about the use of solitary confinement in New York prisons. They screened their film at the Catskill Mountains Film Festival and their characters use the film to raise awareness about fair treatment in prison. 

We interviewed Jeng-Tyng about their film, The Ex-Periment, and what they learned during production.

(more…)

“less about raising money and more about marketing the film”

Filmmakers today have to be their own production companies, PR agencies, and distributors. Columbia Journalism School alum  Salima Amina Koroma, class of 2013, exemplifies the way young filmmakers have taken control of all aspects of producing a documentary. (more…)

“You just need 20 seconds of insane courage.”

Leslye Davis is a name you’ll want to remember. At only 23, she is already a visual journalist at The New York Times, where she began working as an intern and was quickly hired to work as a multimedia producer for projects across multiple desks at The Times. Davis spoke to us about how she started, her approach to stories and her experience at the paper.  (more…)