2015 Gannett Foundation Award for Technical Innovation in the Service of Digital Journalism finalist

Pulp: AJAM’s Open Source Comics Platform


About the Project

Digital journalists are increasingly looking to comics and other illustrated formats as a medium to tell engaging stories. News organizations such as the BBC, the Center for Investigative Reporting / Reveal and the Atlantic’s CityLab have all recently looked to this form to tell serious stories in a way that humanizes complicated subjects and reaches new audiences.

The problem is that most CMSs don’t have a good way of displaying comic pages, especially on mobile where reading panel text and seeing detail is extremely difficult. Desktop formats that lay out one comic page vertically after another can’t take full advantage of comic story-telling devices that make the format unique such as visual sequences that evolve over a two-page spread.

For a comic feature story examining the complex world of technology and personal privacy, Terms of Service: Understanding our role in the world of Big Data, Al Jazeera America developed and open-sourced Pulp: a JavaScript library for display comics and illustrated stories in an engaging way across devices.

Pulp, responsively scales from single-panel, swipe-based viewing mode on mobile phones up to full, two-page spreads on larger screens. These formats let us deliver an experience that puts the storytelling first. For example, through pages 16 to 18 of Terms of Service, we build up to one of the central ideas in the piece — how your different Internet behavior can be connected to tell a story — by slowly constructing a visual motif of connected dots gradually painting a portrait of one of the authors. Since this is a longer form piece as well — 46 pages in total — we end certain sections on full images in order to let the readers pause before going further.

We also created a creator-interface, Pulp Press, that lets comic makers easily define panel regions and endnote hyperlinks without requiring any program knowledge. We felt that preserving hyperlinks was extremely important for attribution purposes and we worked through a number of different formats to create the best user experience without distracting from the story.

Pulp and Pulp Press were covered by Source, the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews publication and has since been used by the San Francisco Public Press for a project on housing and in a five-part BBC series on the drug trade in Guinea Bissau.

BBC interactive journalist Jacqui Maher said:

We wanted to tell the story of Africa’s first narco-state in comic form, and one of our top priorities was reaching our audience in sub-Saharan Africa, who largely come to us on mobile. While the BBC has done this kind of storytelling before, it didn’t really work on mobile. Happily AJAM open sourced their fantastic comic viewer – Pulp – which allowed us to deliver a first class experience on mobile that worked across multiple platforms.

We have also presented the project to other developer groups at UCLA who are interested in using it for educational purposes.