There’s been a lot of talk about the need to experiment with new forms in journalism, especially to reach younger and historically underserved audiences. That’s why a short, effective, and free graphic novel caught my eye this week.
Romina Ruiz-Goiriena, national housing and social services reporter for USA Today, studied thousands of eviction records with data journalist Kevin Crowe. Their analysis led them to a county in Washington state where the eviction rate for Black women is five times higher than for white renters. The resulting investigation was published as a longform article — available only to subscribers, thanks to the premium paywall Gannett, USA Today’s owner, erected in 2021 — and accompanied by unpaywalled tip sheets in English and Spanish. But what caught my attention was the free graphic novel about eviction written by Ruiz-Goiriena and illustrated by Ariana Torrey.
(Side note: USA Today calls the illustrated piece a graphic novel. It seems to me to be the least-bad among available options — “comics journalism,” “graphic nonfiction” — but the suggestion box is open if you have a better term.)
The original article is more than 4,000 words online and appeared as an A1 print piece around 2,700 words. But for the graphic novel, Ruiz-Goiriena said the goal was to “tell the story as fast as an eviction typically happens.”
“Eviction is a civil process that was meant to be fast and cheap for landlords, not for tenants,” Ruiz-Goiriena said. “I don’t think — unless you have been convicted or gone through the process of evicting someone — you know this. You always hear about the outliers, the person who squatted at a place for a year and it was impossible to get them out. There are shows and newscasts about those stories, because it’s exciting and sexy and criminal, but that’s not the majority. People who have gone through eviction [know] it happens really, really, really fast. A lot of the steps happen before people have a chance to understand what is taking place.”
The mobile-friendly graphic novel is available online and via social media. Ruiz-Goiriena described the beginning of the brainstorming process at USA Today to me:
We have a wonderful storytelling studio. When you’re working on an investigation or a big project or story, you pitch them what you’re doing and what your vision is. There’s this big brainstorm in terms of, what are the elements that can accompany the package?
I think my motivation going into that session was saying, “Hey guys, I just wrote 6,000 words, which will become 4,200 words. I report on people that are in underserved communities all the time, and I sometimes feel like my journalism and my reporting is inaccessible to the people that I write about. So what are some ways that we can create assets or do things where it will accomplish the same thing? You know — without being precious about the nuts and bolts of the investigation, but where you will walk away with the key messages of the story.” That’s how the idea of the graphic novel was born.
Like the longer, text-based investigative piece, the graphic novel will teach you that Black women in the United States have a higher chance of being evicted than any other demographic; that fighting an eviction can be confusing, time-consuming, and expensive; that most eviction hearings are a formality that take place in minutes; and that an eviction can follow a renter for decades, making it more difficult to secure housing and even impact their physical health.
The illustrated version is a short read, but dialogue and a second-person “choose your own adventure” format pulls the reader along.
The story puts you in the position of someone who missed a rent payment. Your landlord suggests you paint other units as partial payment, but you don’t have childcare in the afternoons and you work the rest of the day. Do you move out? Fight the eviction?
Ruiz-Goiriena went back and forth with illustrator Ariana Torrey on the right approach. Should they recreate scenes from her reporting? Quotes from the piece? Just illustrate the data? They settled on a choose-your-own-adventure structure to put readers inside the process and illustrate all the “monkey wrenches” that can pop up for renters who face eviction.
“Our idea was to really humanize it because between the records and filings, it’s a lot of paper,” Ruiz-Goiriena said. “There’s an enormous paper trail and people get lost. With the graphic novel, the idea was really to visualize the people that get lost in the shuffle and put them at the forefront by having you, the reader, experience it.”
Ruiz-Goiriena calls herself a jack of all trades — she previously wrote a video game to accompany her investigation for the Miami Herald on how wealthy people evade common barriers in the immigration system — and says she and Crowe were inspired to build on the excellent work being done by Matthew Desmond’s Eviction Lab.
One of the things that Ruiz-Goiriena says she loves about her job is reaching folks who may not be familiar with Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book on eviction or read his work in The New York Times. For many readers, it might be their first encounter with a deep-dive into eviction.
“Through the USA Today network, we have an audience of 150 million people. We write for Main Street,” Ruiz-Goiriena said. “If I were in another publication, it could feel like an echo chamber, and that is not at all the experience of either working or reporting here.”
What advice does she have for journalists who’d like to make sure their work reaches underserved audiences? Ruiz-Goiriena, who has also served as a foreign correspondent in Central America for CNN and The Associated Press, said reporters need to recognize and embrace their responsibility to “democratize journalism” and their own reporting. The people she writes about facing eviction, she noted, are not on Twitter.
“It’s still like, build it and they will come. And that’s not true,” she added. “How are you going to ask somebody without access to come to you? I think it’s about journalists being a little bit less precious with their prose, a little less precious with their formats … You can make stuff that really gets to people if you’re willing to reconsider your own assumptions about your work and your reporting.”