Take a look at this multimedia project that probes whether and why residents of the East End of Newport News, Va., have shut down and stopped talking to cops. The cops say the "no snitching" code is stopping them from solving serious crimes including murders. This story may be applicable in other cities.

The project was part of the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism at The Ohio State University and was produced by Hank Wilson for the Daily Press.

I interviewed Hank via e-mail about the project:

Tompkins: What did you learn about the power of interactive storytelling by doing this project?

Wilson: To me, the power of interactive storytelling is how it allows the subject of the story to talk directly to the viewer. The user can see the emotions and hear the nuance of the subject's story. In the case of the "No Snitching" project, there are a lot of preconceived ideas about the people who live in the East End section of Newport News. Almost every non-resident of that area who sees the barbershop video comments on how thoughtful and strong the women are. Or how angry Mr. Robinson is. How sad it is for Travis to live his life with little hope of change. They have a new understanding of what it's like to live there after seeing and hearing them talk about the area's problems.

I'm surprised how fast users change their opinions about the area once they see real people and not stereotypes live there. It becomes hard for them to hold the same view they did just minutes before even if they don't agree with what is being said. I don't think they would have these new feelings about the people who live in the East End from a newspaper story.

How was this story different from what you might have done in a print-only story or an audio slideshow?

Wilson: In both a traditional narrative print story and a Soundslides show you can control how the reader or viewer receives the information. The Web is nonlinear. People click all over the place and they're impatient. Users never follow the chapter format. I purposely didn't make the stories flow one into the other just for that reason. I think this is one of the things that really scares print journalists, the lack of control over the story's narrative flow. It was fun and a challenge to make each part stand alone so an impatient user might only see one video or just the interactive map but would come away with some understanding about the East End area and no snitching.

What do you want readers/online users of this project to learn?

Wilson: I didn't start the project with an agenda. I just wanted to find out why that area of town was so reluctant to help the police. But, I hope people learn that "No Snitching" is not a one-dimensional, hip hop culture-inspired issue. In the case of the East End, it's about feeling abandoned by the city of Newport News. I hope people who visit the Web site see that the people who live in the East End are not all drug dealers and gangbangers, but citizens with real social problems.

You are an experienced art director with tons of awards to your credit. This is way different from what you have done in the past. What did you have to learn to pull this project off and what advice would you give to other journalists who need to learn new skills to survive and thrive these days?
 
Wilson: I had never shot or edited video. I had to learn how to think and see in video. I had never captured audio. I'm now acutely aware of all the background noise that surrounds us. I had never built a Web site. I had to learn some software programs like Final Cut Pro, Flash and Dreamweaver. I had to learn how to use a video camera and a digital recorder. I'm forever indebted to the Kiplinger fellowship program for the six months it gave me to figure out the technology and for the support while I was reporting the project.

These are just bits of technology anyone can learn. The news business has always had change. When I started there was hot type, IBM typewriters and darkrooms. The skills you have as a journalist are what matters. The ability to put people at ease and have them talk with you. The ability to find and tell a compelling story. I'm not one of the tribe that feels new media is the downfall of journalism. I think it's an incredibly exciting way to tell stories, one that allows reporters more options in getting the story into the hands of the public and one that breaks the reporter free from the bonds of the traditional newspaper story.

My advice to anyone who wants to learn multimedia skills is to start doing it. Make a small, one-minute movie a day. Figure out how to see in video. Watch lots of documentaries and see how a story is told visually. Check out all the Web sites that post multimedia stories. Find a class that will teach you video editing or Flash; there are lots of them online. But most of all don't be afraid and get started.