Q&A with Toronto Star’s ‘Pathologist’ Katie Daubs

The Toronto Star experimented with a graphic novel representation of reporter Katie Daubs' two-week stay indoors and in Toronto's underground PATH system. It was a multi-platform project with maps, videos, photos and more. Here, Daubs answers some of Eric Mark Do’s questions about the experience.

The Toronto Star experimented with a graphic novel representation of reporter Katie Daubs' two-week stay indoors and in Toronto's underground PATH system. It was a multi-platform project with maps, videos, photos and more. Here, Daubs answers some of Eric Mark Do’s questions about the experience.

Screenshot from thestar.com

J-Source: After two weeks indoors, you said it was “just wonderful to be back out here.” But you also decided to “relive” the experience on Twitter after it was over. Why?

Katie Daubs: I wanted to relive the experience on Twitter because there was so much I couldn’t include in the graphic novel portion of the story.

We had decided early on that we weren’t going to use traditional stories with this project, but I thought it was important to have a chronological retelling, so people could see how events and thoughts progressed. (The episodes in the paper jumped around to different days – they were based on themes). There was so much that I couldn’t include in the print version, and I wanted it to exist somewhere, because so much of it was interesting. We talked about live-tweeting beforehand, but we ultimately decided to go this route because we didn’t want the print product (which takes a lot longer to produce because of the photography, design and art involved) to be stale by the time it came out because people already knew what had happened because of Twitter.

I’m not sure re-living things on Twitter worked as well as I thought it would – I think if I did it again, I would tweet less. I think it was close to 1000 tweets in all. I think if you had the time or interest to read it from start to finish, you see how living indoors for two weeks affected me in a way that you don’t see in the print version, and I think that was important.


J-Source: In print you delivered the story like a graphic novel. Why? Was there any concern that some people would have dismissed the print version as part of the funny pages?Screenshot from TheStar.com

KD: This project was the brainchild of our art department – they are always thinking of interesting ways to present the news. Deputy art director Spencer Wynn came up with idea to live underground … and initially conceived it as a photo project. Nuri Ducassi suggested the graphic novel because the idea was so visual – we were going to explore another world. Looking back, the graphic novel format feels like the only way to do Toronto’s underground justice.

If I were to write a story with a few accompanying photos, I don’t think it would have had the same effect. In the graphic novel telling, you get to meet people and places and immediately have a visual – you see the lines on the face of the 75-year-old woman who just comes to the PATH for something to do, the exasperation of a mom coping with rush-hour pedestrian traffic and a stroller. You feel immersed in a different world. Of course, words alone (or photos alone) can tell incredible stories. I just think the combination of the three elements – photos, illustrations and text – worked really well for this particular story.

I think there was some initial concern because it was such a different concept. Before the project ran in the paper, Spencer Wynn and I took a draft copy of the first two episodes to a nearby hotel. We asked a handful of people what they thought of the format. Nobody in our limited sample thought it was part of the funny pages – I think the photographic treatment helped, also, having the layout with an explainer at the top and a sidebar helped distinguish it from your typical Marmaduke exploit.


J-Source: The web version uses a variety of media platforms and has a unique layout. How much of that was part of the original plan and how much was improvised once you went indoors? What other topics do you think this presentation style can be used for in the near future?

Screenshot from thestar.com/news/gta/pathologist

KD: The multi-platform approach was part of the original plan, but we had to modify as we went.

We realized after the first day that shooting video was complicated because each corporation has its own policies – so we didn’t shoot as much video as we thought. The Twitter feed as part of the main page was part of the plan from the start – it was a way to keep the page live. We wanted the web site to offer something additional to the print version, so I think it was a good home for the video and audio that we had. For the web, Brett Smith wrote the code and designers Sharis Shahmiryan and Anda Lupascu designed the map and title elements. We went with the map because it placed different people and events – something we weren’t always able to do in the very limited space of the print version.

As for other topics, I know The Guardian used a graphic novel style for some of its U.S. election coverage (for an online component). I thought it was awesome.

I’ve only read a couple of graphic novels … [but] the combination of beautiful artwork and story is a really captivating form. Newspapers have always used some combination of photography, illustration and journalism; I think projects like this just bring the three even closer together. I think it works particularly well in situations where you’re exploring a concept or place, and it’s also a good way to freshen up topics that have wall-to-wall coverage, like elections. I think anything you can do to catch a reader’s eye is important.


J-Source: Can you describe the adjustments you had to make in terms of writing style, reporting on camera, etc?

KD: It was difficult writing so concisely. While I was living inside, I had four bristol boards on the floor with the themes for the episodes. At the end of every day I’d write out the things I wanted to include on sticky notes, and I’d plop it on a board. On my last weekend in the PATH, I started the process of turning those bristol boards into scripts, so I could give them to Spencer Wynn, who would then go through, find all the art from his shots, and then he’d turn it all over to Raffi Anderian, the illustrator who was laying everything out on the page and giving the photos a more comic-book look.

It was difficult writing the scripts because I’m used to writing transitions for stories, making sure a story flows from one concept/person to the next. I initially wrote these episodes with transitions, but scrapped most of them once I saw the layout on the page – in most cases transitions were redundant because the images told so much of the story.

I really tried to write briefly, but most times, there was too much text for Raffi to work with, so I’d wander over to his desk and make cuts. Sometimes, it was just a few words, sometimes, entire events or people got cut (which was why I really wanted to do the Twitter account). It was a good exercise in word-by-word editing. Most times, when Raffi asked me to cut out some words, I could do it, and the end result was better.

When he was finished laying things out, Mike Simpson and I would go over the episode again to make sure the text made sense with the pictures. So usually at this point, there would be a few more changes. Additionally, assistant managing editor of presentation Nuri Ducassi gave everything on the art side the final look over, and on the text side, city editor Irene Gentle and features editor Alison Uncles had a read.

As you can see, the Star invested a lot of time and energy in this project.

As for reporting on camera, there are a lot of outtakes. I had to concentrate on not rambling (you can see I have a tendency to go on…), and not letting this bizarre stage voice I sometimes get when I’m shooting on-camera emerge.


J-Source: You stayed at One King West, which is connected to the PATH, for two weeks. Did you have to pay for these accommodations?

KD: The Star paid for the two-week stay.


J-Source: What is the main thing you want people/journalists to take away from this project?

KD: I would love if people came away from the project with an appreciation for the subculture of Toronto’s underground world. I’d like it if people decided to go for a walk in there after reading the series, to try and find different places. For me, the takeaway as a journalist was the number of stories I found just by walking around for two weeks. I know it’s easy to get shackled to a desk in this profession, working on stories and waiting for phone calls, so it was nice to have the freedom to explore and actively search instead of being reactive when it comes to stories.

The graphic novel format should be used more often in newspapers – but you really need to find the perfect subject, and have enough time to produce something of this size. The National Post has been really great at integrating illustration – their graphic columnist Steve Murray writes and draws some really funny stuff for the paper, and in particular, for his “Extremely bad advice” column. It’s fun and it’s different, and it’s a draw. I didn’t mean to make that bad pun, sometimes they just happen.

For more, check out the Toronto Star's live-chat discussion of the project here.


*This interview has been edited