Life is complicated; the news doesn’t have to be. With so much going on in the world, Al Jazeera Digital saw an urgent need to provide our readers with the vital background to the news that they require to better understand events around them, and the inevitable impact they can have on their lives. In essence, we wanted historical perspective. And with the arrival of generative AI, by way of Midjourney AI, a novel opportunity presented itself. Enter History Illustrated, Al Jazeera’s weekly explainer of news events, past and present, with artwork created by our design team, their abundant talents further augmented by Midjourney.
Our designers employ a film-noir, graphic-novel aesthetic with compelling images that we believe offers an engaging style of presenting the impact of news events. Coupled with a highly focused text, written so every word counts, the end result is a powerful tool for succinctly driving home why things are the way they are in the world today, and how they might affect you and yours. It is also critical that we tailor our content to our digital consumers, people so often driven by what we might call a TikTok sensibility, where a reader’s attention must be grabbed immediately, and then sustained. History Illustrated does that, we believe, and more.
As wonderful as generative AI most certainly is, it is also far from perfect. We still need people to make it work. With that understanding front and centre, our management team at Al Jazeera Digital gathered some of our top senior talent, designers and writers. Together they brainstormed what our product, History Illustrated, would look like. We dedicated our creative director, and one of our seasoned writers to work up a pilot. Over the course of a week or two, they troubleshot the AI. What word commands worked? What didn’t? The proof-of-concept — our pilot episode on the Iraq war — was 16 panels long. Management loved it. Then they said cut it down to 10. After a gasp or two, perhaps a tear here and there, the cuts were made — with the product now undeniably better for being utterly succinct. In the end, the team had developed a film-noir, graphic-novel aesthetic to give the impact our readers demand of our stories. And we do it week in, week out.
That said, in creating History Illustrated, it was no small task to fine tune the human-machine interface. In other words, we had to learn to talk to the computer. Without doubt, Midjourney AI is an amazing tool, taking only a few word commands to create four striking visual options to choose from in one go, all generally generated in under 60 seconds. But who knew a machine could seemingly be so stubborn? In one memorably baffling instance, we tried to generate the image of a journalist as seen from behind. She needed to be wearing a flak jacket, walking away from the camera. Inexplicably, the generative AI insisted on rendering her wearing a backpack that obliterated any hint of a flak jacket — despite no mention of said backpack in the command copy. It took several word permutations, and a few choice mutterings, before we landed on the final image, the opening panel for our Shireen Abu Akleh episode. It was exhausting, frustrating and, if we are to be honest, so much fun, too.
It seems that just about every parent considers their child the best, the most beautiful. And if we’re to be honest, we’re no different. During development, and especially once the pilot episode landed, the team at Al Jazeera Digital were genuinely excited by what we were creating with History Illustrated. Our weekly look at the news, past and present, explored from a historical perspective, simply put, looked good, and was very much our baby. The illustrations were created by our talented designers, augmented by Midjourney AI. The generative artificial intelligence opened up a world of opportunity, capable of creating compelling images at the stroke of a few key-word commands. By and large, Midjourney was intuitive — and fast. And our audience loved it, placing History Illustrated among Al Jazeera Digital’s top performers, with each successive episode having racked up a plethora of ‘likes’.
On Instagram, our success has been entirely unpromoted and organic. With 18 powerful posts at the time of this writing, we’ve totalled 170,000 engagements, 3.6 million impressions, with a reach of 2.8 million unique content consumers. What’s more, the episodes have generated rich threads of comments, where opinion meets passion. And we think it’s because we’re different. Where else can you find geopolitical perspective married to a cool graphic-novel aesthetic that, together, deliver topics with impact for discussing change online? Proud parents that we are, dare we say History Illustrated is unique.