Multimedia editorial content isn't quite perfect yet -- but the best online storytelling by news organizations is pretty darn good.

It's silver, not gold.

Last month, I joined five other volunteers for the annual judging of the SND.ies, the Society of News Design's fledgling competition that seeks to identify and honor the best in online storytelling by the news industry worldwide.

We saw much that we liked, but for the second year running, the judges who assembled at the Estlow Center for Journalism and New Media at Denver University failed to award any top prizes -- the coveted "Gold" awards. We did award four "Silver," nine "Bronze," and nine "Awards of Excellence." (Judges had free rein to award as many of each level of award as they pleased -- or opt to award none.)

You might think that this result indicates that multimedia news storytelling is still in its infancy. Yes, that's partly true. But SND.ies coordinator (and Estlow's executive director) Laura Ruel puts it in a positive light: "Recognizing that there is so much more we can do is a great thing," she says. "This whole 'no gold' thing shouldn't be thought of as disrespect by the judges for the excellent work that is being done."

Maybe next year we judges will "go for the gold." What will it take? Well, in this particular competition, the bar is set high. Of the six judges who gathered in Denver, all had to agree to make an entry into a Gold winner; five of six were required for Silver.

To get over that high bar, Ruel has a list of characteristics which entrants should strive for next year: high-quality, excellent journalism (in terms of reporting and editing); high-quality, excellent design and presentation; and demonstrated innovation and creativity with multimedia presentation tools. All of those attributes are required. (Of course, you shouldn't be going to all that hard work just to win awards, but rather to best serve your audience; do that and the awards will follow.)

Fellow judge Nora Paul, director of the Institute for New Media Studies at the University of Minnesota, says that while some of the entries in this year's competition were very sophisticated, the web is a medium "that still requires for perfection more time, attention, technology, editorial support, and online design skills than most online newsrooms have available. Particularly in the breaking news categories -- this is fast-turnaround content that with a couple more days of tweaking might have gotten to Gold, but it was just Honorable (and that's not bad)."

The Big Picture: Iraq. MSNBC.com

The Big Picture: Decision 2002. MSNBC.com

Dangerous Business. NYTimes.com

Hirschfeld dies at 99. NYTimes.com

"BRONZE" AWARDS:
* A Day in the Life of Pittsford Mendon, DemocratandChronicle.com
* The Fathers Remember, NYTimes.com
* Touch Screen Voting in Broward and Miami-Dade Counties, SunSentinel.com
* 10 Years After Andrew, SunSentinel.com
* Tiroteo en Ciudad Lineal, elmundo.es
* Una Superficie Polémica, elmundo.es
* Envisioning Downtown, NYTimes.com
* Evolution of the Shuttle Columbia disaster graphic, USAToday.com
* Times War Briefing, NYTimes.com

FULL LIST OF AWARD WINNERS & FINALISTSPaul points to some really stellar online content that's been produced by PBS and National Geographic. "Some of the online news content seems pretty light in comparison," she says.

Judge Scott Horner, assistant graphics director at the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, frames it differently. "The fact is, there are producers out there doing the best interactive stuff ever done for news organizations on the web. A Gold project would have the features of interactivity, video as well as strong design and a slick look -- and the thing that would put it over the top is compelling content.

"Did we have that this year? I think we did -- but I am only one judge."

What we liked

There was much that we judges liked among this last year's multimedia-news entries. Some examples:

MSNBC.com's "Big Picture" multimedia packages. So far, MSNBC.com has produced three of these multi-part, multi-media, interactive content presentations: an overview of the Iraq conflict; a lead-up to the 2002 U.S. elections; and an Oscars (Academy Awards) preview. SND.ies judges chose to give the Big Picture series a "Special Recognition" award for industry innovation -- and the Election Big Picture and the Iraq Big Picture each won a Silver award.

The packages put a lot of content into a single presentation -- so they're best suited for large topics. Judges admired the option for web users to choose between two modes: one that leads you through the various components of the feature linearly, as though you are watching a TV program; the other lets the viewer click around from topic to topic.

Other innovations of the Big Picture include a small video narrator in the lower right of the screen, who speaks at times to guide viewers to what's next, and interactive polling of viewers, with instant feedback about what others thought. The Big Picture leads the way toward a next generation of online-news multimedia content -- indeed, it points to a possible eventual direction for news presentation on interactive TV, not just the web.

elmundo.es: "Tiroteo en Ciudad Lineal." SND.ies judges, predictably, looked fondly on multimedia features that told stories in new, better ways. A crime-reporting multimedia graphic by Spain's El Mundo web team caught our collective eye, and we gave it a Bronze award.

The breaking-news web graphic -- a series of slides that you click through to read the story -- explains a shooting that took place in a parking lot via a combination of real photos of the site overlayed with animated graphic illustrations to show what police believe happened there. Even if you can't read Spanish, you'll get a sense from this interactive graphic of what occurred. It's a nice example -- done on a tight deadline -- of how the web sometimes is the best way to tell a particular story.

USAToday.com: Evolution of Shuttle Columbia disaster graphic. USAToday.com entered a web interactive graphic presentation that can be used as a model for breaking-news multimedia. Click on the link above and you'll see the news site's main shuttle-disaster graphic, from its first incarnation early in the day through many makeovers when additional content elements were added. SND.ies judges gave this a Bronze award.

Journalism educators might want to use this as a teaching tool, to demonstrate how a single piece of content can be enhanced and improved throughout the cycle of a major story. This is a far cry from the old days of print infographics, when graphic artists had only one deadline to meet.

El Mundo's body of interactive-graphics work. elmundo.es not only won a total of five Bronze and Excellence awards, plus an additional four Finalist spots, it also earned a Special Recognition award for its body of interactive-graphics work. Said Ruel, "They are just plain GOOD! The volume and quality of the work they do is what stands out for me."

Nora Paul: "El Mundo is to be commended because it is taking seriously the exploration of online storytelling to enhance users' experience and understanding of news events. They routinely produce fine animated infographics that have a level of detail and clarity that would be impossible to reproduce statically."

Scott Horner was impressed with El Mundo's web coverage of an oil-tanker spill off Spain. "Not only did they have graphic info that no one else had, but they produced great graphics on deadline."


Trends we noticed


While the August judging was the end of my first year with the SND.ies, others had just completed two terms and participated in last year's annual judging. Some of the things the more seasoned judges noticed:


  • Some of the best work in this year's SND.ies competition is heavily templated -- especially that from NYTimes.com and elmundo.es. This is generally a good thing, in that templates speed the process of creating news multimedia -- meaning it's possible to produce it on tight deadlines. But the best templates, of course, also allow for much flexibility in terms of formats of content included and layout/design.
  • There's much greater use of high-bandwidth content that requires of users a broadband Internet connection. There's less worry these days among multimedia producers about creating content that will work on slower dial-up connections. While recognizing that a large segment of the Internet audience does not yet have broadband, enough people do that it's worthwhile to invest in creating broadband-specific content. News producers use video and audio much more frequently than a year ago.
  • "I think overall slickness is apparent" this year, noted Horner. "Things are looking much better designed, and packaging is strong."
  • Judges noted the increased sophistication of the marriage of images and sound in some of the slide-show entries for this competition. Paul noted "a growing comfort with audio on the part of print-legacy news organizations and a growing level of interest by reporters and photojournalists to offer up commentary along with their reports and images." Some of the best examples of this come from NYTimes.com.
  • There's also more innovation and "slickness" in some of the photo slide shows we judges reviewed -- for example, MSNBC.com's "The Year in Pictures 2002," which won an Award of Excellence for melding fine news photography with audio and a nifty interactive or auto-running viewing interface.
  • Smaller news organizations are producing more high-quality, award-winning multimedia content. While the Silver winners in this year's SND.ies were media big-wigs -- The New York Times and MSNBC -- among the other winners were some medium-sized and smaller operations. The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle won a Bronze award for its "A Day in the Life of Pittsford Mendon" project -- part of a package of multimedia profiles of local schools. A student-produced multimedia feature, "So Close to Home," from the University of Florida at Gainesville, won a finalist slot. (Next year, the SND.ies will break out a category just for student work; this year, student projects competed with that of professional news organizations.)
  • Overall, says contest coordinator Ruel, "I see the field of multimedia journalism improving at a rapid pace. I'm someone old enough to have watched the improvement in newspaper print design since it became a recognized aspect of news reporting. I see multimedia progressing at a much faster rate. That's exciting."
  • We judges did notice, however, that most of the multimedia content from news organizations is still treated as online "sidebar" material to -- what else -- main text content. We expect and hope that will change, as these new forms of online storytelling become the principal means of imparting information (as appropriate), not merely an adjunct.

What not to do

Finally, if your organization is interested in doing a better job of online storytelling -- and perhaps winning in next year's SND.ies -- here's some advice from the judges on multimedia news content:

  • Don't be too clever with your interface design. Make it easy for the reader without adding superfluous tricks that detract from the content.
  • Don't throw too many "gee whiz, look what I can do" components into a multimedia project, when a more routine approach would have been just as, if not more, effective.
  • Don't toss too much information in a multimedia package unless you're got a clear organizational scheme with which to guide readers through.
  • Many designers add sounds to buttons, but making them too loud or obnoxious is a turn-off.
  • If you're a small online-news organization, don't try to do too many multimedia projects. Focus on doing a few well during the year, rather than a bunch not as well.