Snow-blind: The challenge of voice and vision in multi-media storytelling

winter snowy background blizzard, frost

There has been no American feature story more honored – or over-praised – than “Snow Fall” by the New York Times. I don’t want the key word in that last sentence – over-praised – to detract from the story’s historic achievement. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for feature writing; it set a standard for multi-media reporting at a time when we were wondering about the viability of that form of storytelling; and it attracted attention from far and wide, lending encouragement that journalism in the digital age has an exciting future.

Cheers to the writer, John Branch, to graphics director Steve Duenes, and to the team that created it.

Much of the original praise for the work was worshipful and, I believe, superficial. The dazzling visual effects were there for all to see and left potential critics, dare I use the term, snow-blind.

“Snow Fall” is many good things, but great storytelling is not one of them. I will argue that the innovative visual elements that brought it fame detract from the power of the narrative.

(Let me say that it is exactly this kind of work – impressive and innovative – that deserves our sharpest critical attention over time, the way that the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt received darts from critics such as Francine Prose and James Woods.)

The criticisms I bring to “Snow Fall” are mine and mine alone, which is not to say that I am a voice in the wilderness. After the critical euphoria that followed publication, a more sober reflection became possible only with the passage of time. That’s why I am weighing in now. It also provides an opportunity to articulate standards and strategies for what constitutes excellence in multimedia storytelling.

I began to hear tough questions about the “Snow Fall” story – its methods and effects – in coffee-houses where writers meet, at narrative conferences, in newsroom and classrooms. It did not come from jealousy or fear, but from an honest desire to know the strengths and limitations of such an approach.

Using the first section of the story as a kind of microcosm – and encouraging you all to read that much, at least – I offer the following critiques:

1. Most of the visual elements violate the essential credo of effective storytelling: Not to give away too much too soon.
2. Time and again the visual elements “step on the narrative.”
3. There is a “kitchen sink” feel to the visual aspects of the story.
4. The first section of text feels out of tune with the second.
5. Most of all, there is no harmony between what I would call the Voice of the story and its Vision.

Let me expand on these, in order:

1. Giving it away: Is “Snow Fall” a “what” narrative or a “how” narrative? It makes a difference. In a “what” narrative, the reader is driven to learn what happens next. In a “how” narrative, the reader may already knows what happened, but is eager to learn how it happened. “Snow Fall” can’t decide. As a result, there is no “engine” in the story, no driving force of curiosity, as in “who will live and who will die.” Early in the story, we are introduced to a video interview of one of the survivors. We see her whole and healthy, speaking from some unknown location, at a physical and temporal distance from the action described in the story. And yet here is the text beside her image: “Saugstad was mummified. She was on her back, her head pointed downhill. Her goggles were off. Her nose ring had been ripped away. She felt the crushing weight of snow on her chest. She could not move her legs. One boot still had a ski attached to it. She could not lift her head because it was locked into the ice.”

This feels like one of a number of instances in which the textual and visual elements are out of sync.

2. Stepping on narrative: The storytelling that begins “Snow Fall” is of high quality. It shows everything you would want from a narrative: intense scenic action, a dramatic setting, characters we might come to care about, and a cataclysmic inciting incident – an avalanche — so powerful that it transforms a landscape and the humans who enter it. The defining effect of narrative is to create a vicarious experience, to inhabit a world, to be there – on the snow and then in the snow and then buried by snow. The problem is that the narrative line is interrupted, time and again, by elements that are marginal to the storytelling. Embedded in the text are tiny icons that signify the visual tools: a video, a slide show. Every time I clicked on one of these, it took me away from the story. Instead of time moving, time was frozen, so to speak. Narratives are, by definition, linear (although they can contain more than one line). And it is possible to create narratives with multi-media components: text, visuals, audio, music and much more. We have a name for these. We call them movies.

3. Kitchen sink: I’m trying to learn the names for all the multi-media effects use in “Snow Fall.” There is a title page on a mountaintop, where the snow seems to be blowing; there is the way a text or image seems to surface from the bottom of the page before you’ve scrolled down to it; there are videos and slide shows; still photographs; a turning aerial view as if seen from a drone. It is the accumulation of visual elements that created the Gee Whiz response from admirers. But why all these elements? Perhaps a little selectivity was in order. It was Miles Davis, the jazz artist, who talked about how long it took to learn which notes to leave out.

4. Out of tune: Most of my argument is predicated on some sort of disharmony between the words and visuals in “Snow Fall,” but there is also a case to be made about dissonance in the text itself. Even without the visual elements, we would find interruptions in the narrative. The second part, titled “Tunnel Creek” feels as if written in a different voice from the opening scenes. This is a predictable and acceptable practice in all forms of journalism. One genre is called the “broken line,” a hybrid of narrative and informational reporting, the kind of news feature story that might begin with a narrative lead and be followed by a nut graph. Books by authors such as John McPhee, who tends to tell stories about people and their passions, move easily between explanatory and storytelling modes.

But I have a confession here. On three separate tries I was not able to navigate easily through the text of the Tunnel Creek section, which describes topography and history, not because the prose is insufficient, but because it felt like such a departure from the vivid style that begins the piece.

5. Voice and Vision: I believe I can summarize my critique in talking about two effects of creative journalism, one which I will call Voice and the other Vision. Each one can be perceived in a story, especially a work created through a multi-media approach. Each one is a collection of choices made by the writer and producer – in collaboration, one would hope.

Let’s start with Voice, and I’ll borrow my definition from Poynter friend and colleague Don Fry: “Voice is the sum of all the choices made by the writer that create the illusion that the writer is speaking off the page directly to the reader.” The reason you can identify – without bylines – the author of columns by Anna Quindlen and Maureen Dowd is all about voice. Even if the topic is the same, they SOUND different.
So what are some of those choices, the writer might make:

– The level of language, from slang to formal.
– The type of narration, from first person to third person.
– The story form, from experimental to conventional.
– The stance from neutral to partisan.

–The language, from plain to metaphorical.

Using Voice as an analogy, let me attempt a parallel definition for Vision. “Vision is that quality created by the sum of all the choices made by the designer or artist, the effect of which is a unified way of seeing, as if we were all looking through the same lens.”

So what are some of the choices the visual journalist might make that would influence vision?:

– The decision to use color or black and white.
– The development of a color palette consistent with the content and purpose of the work.
– The decision to use visual images as decorative, illustrative, or documentary in nature.
– The choice of visual platforms from still images to video to animation.
– The level of visual elements, from popular and commercial to high art.
– The choice of typefaces.

The more that the collaborators can discuss in advance the elements of voice and vision, the more they can channel their moves to fulfill the mission and purpose of the work, the more successful will be the experience of the audience.

Let’s take an example of another New York Times multi-media story that, in my opinion, offers a more successful marriage of Voice and Vision. The work is called Tomato Can Blues, written by Mary Pilon, and tells the story of a marginal cage fighter who fakes his own death because he owes money to drug dealers.

The tone of the piece, and the elements of the prose style, is reflected in the title. In the slang of the fight game a Tomato Can is a journeyman boxer who almost always loses and who takes a lot of punishment, getting beat to a bloody pulp – like the contents of a can of tomatoes. That slang, that grit, that working class lingo seeks its equivalent in the visual elements, which it finds in the comic book/graphic novel illustrations of Attila Futaki, who created them journalistically, based them on “police records, witness accounts, photographs and the reporter’s notes.” There is even an audio element that matches the words and visuals and is recited by Bobby Cannavale, an actor known for his work on gangland shows like Boardwalk Empire.

So there you have it, one work in which Voice and Vision seem slightly out of tune, and another where they work in close harmony. I look forward to the next experiment in multi-media storytelling by the New York Times and other media organizations. Read more

Interactive Media

Explore the makings of interactive journalism

At some point, every journalist grapples with figuring out what his or her story is about – particularly if that story involves complex data sets or government documents, and the end result will be an interactive project rather than a straightforward narrative.

Perhaps Andrew DeVigal can help.

DeVigal is director of content strategy at Second Story and the former multimedia editor at The New York Times. In a phone interview, he shared the steps he takes when starting an interactive project to ensure the results form a cogent story.

The first question he asks himself is a deceptively simple one: “What does the content want to be?” It is a question he attributes to a former colleague at The Times, Steve Duenes, AME for graphics.

DeVigal, a self-described “natural organizer,” likes to partition the information into buckets to understand the different pieces of the story. In doing that, he will ask himself such questions as, “What is the information about?”, “Who does it affect?” and “What is at stake here?”

When he has a solid understanding of the information available to him, his next step is to “highlight the most important key elements.” That helps him determine how to present the interactive so the viewer can dive into complexity, or skim if the information is too complex.

“That’s the true craft of a journalist: to make things clear for the viewers and readers,” he said.

DeVigal’s last step before building the interactive is to think about the audience and the context in which they will see the story. Analyzing the potential audience is very difficult, DeVigal said, especially for general-purpose news sites that are “trying to hit as many people as possible.” Nonetheless, he added that it’s crucial to “frame the presentation so that you actually have a very known target audience,” even if that leads you to creating two different versions of your interactive aimed at different target audience.

What is interactive journalism?

DeVigal’s philosophy on interactives has been shaped by a career that began in informational graphics at The Chicago Tribune, took him to Knight-Ridder as a designer and brought him to San Francisco State University as a professor of visual journalism while he was a fellow and visiting faculty at Poynter, and then led him to the Times. After six years in New York, DeVigal moved to Oregon and began working for Second Story, a design studio specializing in interactive storytelling and part of SapientNitro.

But what is interactive journalism, anyway?

The term has described many multimedia news packages — think Snowfall, Gauging Your Distraction, Firestorm, A World Apart and Hazardous Hospitals. These projects combine video, photos, audio, graphics, maps, data visualizations and text to tell stories that couldn’t exist before the Internet.

But DeVigal sees interactive journalism as far more than a reflection of which media are used for storytelling. To him, it’s a carefully crafted experience, one that draws users in and lets them create their own individual stories from the content available.

Several aspects of interactives allow this. For starters, viewers can consume a story at their own pace and find their own path through it, instead of following a linear presentation typical of print.

Open pathways lead to personalization: DeVigal wants to make viewers feel as if the “story was about themselves.”

He offered the example of a map — it’s interactive because a user can start with the big picture and then drill down to only see information on, say, California. The ability to switch perspectives gives designers breathing room to introduce more complex information that wasn’t possible in static print stories. The user can also customize the map, creating a new and unique experience every time.

An experiment in film

Since DeVigal started working outside of the news industry, he has had more freedom to experiment. In October, for instance, DeVigal and his team at Second Story experimented with an interactive storytelling project, Shape of Story, at a screening of seven short films on gun rights and gun-control laws at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, Ore.

Shape of Story from Second Story on Vimeo.

During each film, viewers were asked to tap a button on an app every time they had an emotional reaction. Immediately after each film, the Second Story team projected a visualization on the screen showing which moments caused the most reactions from the audience. This visualization was the shape of the story.

Viewers also had three minutes to submit comments through the app, with the team choosing comments to display on the big screen alongside the visualization.

The goal wasn’t to find the perfect shape of story, but to explore whether interactions among audience members could add value to the movie-going experience.

The short answer according to Nora Bauman, operations manager at Second Story, is yes. The key to interactives, she said in a phone interview, is that “you’re creating an experience for a user so they can write their own narrative.”

Perhaps that’s why DeVigal has always asked the same question, regardless of the medium he’s using or where he’s been employed: “Can we bring the same special ingredient around campfire storytelling into the ways we’re telling stories?”

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Correction and clarification: A previous version of this story located the Hollywood Theatre in Los Angeles rather than Portland, Ore. DeVigal attributes a question he asks himself to a former colleague, Steve Duenes, and Second Story is a part of SapientNitro. Read more

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New Vice series animates journalists’ stories

When Carrie Ching recorded Mimi Chakarova telling the story of how she posed as a prostitute to research her film, The Price of Sex, she turned the lights out. “I wanted it to feel really intimate. Like a confessional,” Ching said in an interview with Poynter.

Working in the dark “really helped” convey Chakarova’s story, Ching said. “I Posed as a Prostitute in a Turkish Brothel” is the first installment of her “Correspondent Confidential” series, produced in partnership with Vice, the hipster culture conglomerate, and it draws on some of the lessons Ching learned as multimedia producer at the Center for Investigative Reporting, which she left this past spring.

While there, Ching helped produce “In Jennifer’s Room,” a video that accompanied Ryan Gabrielson’s story about the abuse and rape of a mentally disabled former patient at the Sonoma Developmental Center in California. Using animation to tell a difficult story “makes it a little more digestible for viewers,” Ching told me when I interviewed her last November. “It doesn’t overwhelm them as much.” Read more


How ongoing teamwork fueled The Guardian’s Firestorm interactive

How did The Guardian find a focus for its new multimedia piece, Firestorm?

The project began with inspiration: a striking photograph of a woman and her grandchildren taking shelter from a raging fire in the water under a jetty. The photograph came to represent what Australian officials refer to as “The Angry Summer,” the hottest season on record in that nation’s history. That season affected thousands of people in Tasmania, and has become a talking point about climate change.

Feature writer Jon Henley and video producer Laurence Topham went to Tasmania to find the story behind that photo and others. When they returned, they worked with the Guardian’s multimedia and interactive teams to fuse words, video footage, pictures and audio into a rich interactive feature.

The photo that helped inspire The Guardian’s project. Firestorm tells the story of how this family survived a wildfire that devastated their community. The project melds video, text and graphics in six chapters.

“I think you have to capture people’s hearts,” Francesca Panetta, special projects editor of interactive storytelling projects, said in a phone interview. “As with all kinds of storytelling, you can’t lose sight of that need to connect and touch people, whether it’s writing or radio or a complicated interactive.”

Firestorm is remarkable for a number of reasons, including the stellar video images and the subtle way that looping video is used behind the written story. The integration between words and video is handled with such finesse that the one doesn’t distract from the other.

“We’re very happy with the subtlety,” Panetta said.

The chapter navigation uses clear images and concise icons and labels, ensuring it’s always clear where you are in the story.

A project like Firestorm or The New York Times’ Pulitzer-winning interactive, Snow Fall, demands considerable resources. Twenty-three people are credited for Firestorm, which was three months in the making — actually a speedy turnaround for a project of this scale.

Many newsrooms don’t have that level of resources, of course. But they can still learn from The Guardian’s process and the project’s experiments with layered storytelling — and figure out ways to do something similar on a smaller scale.

Here are some takeaways from the project:

Figure out how different departments can work together.

Panetta stressed that collaboration was key within the team, which she directed with Interactive Editor Jonathan Richards. “The number of people that were involved and the range of skills were crucial,” she said. “It was incredibly enjoyable, but more importantly, it really shows within the final outcome.”

At times, a designer, videographer, writer, developers and others all sat together in the editing suite as choices were made about how text might run over images.

Having a tightly integrated project team is essential, Richards said in an email interview: “It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of physical proximity, not least because that mini-cycle of ‘try it out, get feedback, iterate, improve’ becomes possible. It’s that mini-cycle, repeated many times over, that is at the core of a lot of successful pieces.”

Henley “was literally sitting next to me, writing into the b-roll,” said Panetta. “Writers don’t usually have things moving behind their words. … It seemed like the best, collaborative situation for us to be able to see these elements come together.” Henley’s full text is included in an e-book version of the project, available through The Guardian.

Start planning early.

The team was formed before the reporting even began. Designer Daan Louter created templates for the interface before Henley and Topham left for Tasmania. “We had to rework the pages when they came back to design it all around this beautiful footage,” Panetta said.

Be prepared for several iterations.

First, the video was cut into very straightforward films, Panetta said. “I worked with them to see how the writing could be meshed with the footage.” Then, she said, “we worked with the interactive team to re-cut the videos after we saw what we had.”

Let the story evolve alongside technical editing.

“Building an interactive that’s very video-heavy has enormous technical things to consider,” Panetta said.

Staffers tackled buffering problems and tested all of the different browsers people might use to view the story. They considered what type of images would work with text floating on top, and how many words would work well on the page. They also did several days of lab testing to see how users would move through the story before posting the project last Sunday.

“With interactives, it’s about where you are taking people’s attention within all of these spheres. The elements have got to fuse together,” Panetta said.

“The feedback loop between such testing and editorial teams is really important,” said Richards. “Editorial teams are traditionally unfamiliar with — and wary of — such testing. It shouldn’t be that way.”

Testing, Richards said, “can be super low-tech—you don’t need a lab. Diligently spending a morning testing [an interactive] with six or seven colleagues can often yield more insight than a week’s worth of design / development / discussion. We made some really high-level tweaks in the days prior to launch as a result of doing that.”

Set goals and figure out how time commitments.

“As with any genre, the story has to be there,” Panetta said. In other words, the content and possible shelf life must warrant the effort required for a large interactive presentation.

In addition to the interactive team led by Richards in the U.K., The Guardian has a group of designers, interactive developers and journalists in New York that works with editorial teams to produce dynamic projects. The company also has a team that helps newsroom staff create e-books.

“We see ourselves as a media organization,” Panetta said, adding that “it’s a craft in itself to combine media to make the story rich and immersive. … We continue to try to see what it is that people like and what they engage with.”

Richards said he thinks “we’re really only at the beginning of what it can feel like to experience ‘media’ in a beautifully integrated and immersive way. … When you consider how important the visual and audio senses are to your experience of the world, it seems crazy not to investigate cleverer, subtler and more compelling ways to make them part of web-based storytelling.” Read more


New AP interactive editor: Multimedia needs to be ‘central to developing the story,’ not an afterthought

As the Associated Press’ new interactive editor, Troy Thibodeaux brings to the role the varied experience you’d expect of a former travel writer, English teacher and member of the and Times-Picayune team that won a Pulitzer for Hurricane Katrina coverage.

As AP Global Interactive Editor Paul Cheung explained in a memo to the staff, “Thibodeaux will lead a team of programmer-journalists to create groundbreaking journalism with a focus on newsroom tools, data-driven stories and interactive features. There will be a strong emphasis on working on global investigative stories, in alliance with news leaders and journalists across the company.”

We asked Thibodeaux a few questions about his new role, his plans for the future of AP multimedia and how rank-and-file journalists can get involved in interactive projects. Here’s a lightly edited version of our email exchange:

You’ve been with the Associated Press for a while now. What kind of projects led to your promotion?

Troy Thibodeaux

I came to AP to work on the 2008 elections as part of the multimedia team in D.C. Our team’s beat was potentially anything that came through Washington, so I was able to work on a wide array of data-rich stories and with a number of reporters who had deep domain knowledge in those beats.

After the election, I began working with our national and regional investigative teams, and I helped put together a training program in investigative reporting and data journalism for our reporters around the country. As a result, a large part of my job already involved expanding our ability to do data journalism at AP, and this new role builds directly on that experience.

The AP is expanding its digital content team. Who is coming to the team you’ll be overseeing? What kind of roles are you still looking for?

The data journalism team is largely made up of folks I’ve been working with in the Interactives department. They all have significant technical skills in data visualization, Web development or DevOps, but I’m really excited about the passion they’ve shown for investigation and storytelling — those things that differentiate journalist-coders from other kinds of developers. We’re also in the process of hiring a fifth data journalist for the team, and we’re looking for someone who shares those priorities and who can help expand our technical reach.

We’re a small group working with a large organization, so we have to be flexible – a team of utility players, rather than more narrowly focused specialists. Web developers often talk about learning the “full stack” — by which they mean learning both the back-end code (the data-centric heavy lifting the user doesn’t see) and the front-end code (the user interface we do see). Our team is learning the full stack, but our stack is bigger than most; it includes things like data vetting, story development and exploratory data analysis.

What are your plans for future projects? What do you and the AP want to do that you currently aren’t doing?

There are a few predictable projects on the horizon. Elections are probably even more important for us than for the average news organization. We’re also going to be working on other big events, such as the Olympics. There are some large investigative and enterprise projects underway and others we’re just starting.

So, we already have a lot on our plates. But we’re also going to discover important projects as a team, through our work with reporters and through our own brand of reporting: diving into the data. In general, I want to continue doing the kind of core work that AP does best, but I want to expand our technical abilities and bring more-sophisticated tools to that effort.

Approaches to data analysis that involve machine learning or natural-language processing, for example, can help us ask questions that have been beyond our reach. And by challenging ourselves to create more engaging data visualizations and intuitive user interfaces, we can offer our readers a deeper understanding of the stories they most care about.

How do you see increasing digital media distribution affecting how the AP reaches people? 

AP is fortunate in that our product has always been our journalism, and it can be distributed in many different forms. So, any development that increases the distribution range of our members and customers means we reach more people in new ways as well. We were among the earliest news organizations in the mobile space, and our mobile team is doing exciting things with our app. I’m especially looking forward to exploring new ways our data team can contribute on the mobile platform.

Are you planning projects that member outlets would be able to incorporate into their own websites? 

Absolutely! All of our interactives are embeddable, and our members and customers already incorporate them into their sites. I’m interested in ways we can customize our data-driven interactives, both for the customer and for the end user. Those efforts are part of our design discussion for the work we’re doing now. I would also like to find more ways to collaborate with other news organizations. AP was born from such cooperation, and it is an important part of our identity.

Are the projects the AP works on more often than not driven from the print side, augmenting what’s being written by a reporter or team of reporters? Or do they sometimes originate from the digital side? If it is a case of digitally driving what reporters write, would you like to see a shift to data journalists promoting more original narrative work?

More often than not, I’ve found that good data projects start with solid shoe-leather reporting, so most of our data projects have begun with the work of text reporters and editors. But the data work that we do begins before the story is written: exploratory data analysis can discover new angles in the data, and the right visualization can reveal a trend we had missed.

We’re really moving away from the model in which visualization or interactive storytelling is an afterthought, an illustration of the story, and toward a model in which this work is central to developing the story and enables us to tell the story in ways impossible for straight text reporting.

I’m also looking for our group to originate story ideas, to develop our own data sources just as reporters develop human sources, and to pitch ideas that could lead to text and video stories in addition to interactives and graphics. There are also some ideas that simply work best as standalone news apps, and in those cases we might not have a text story to accompany the app (at least not right away).

How would a journalist with no data or multimedia background best prepare themselves to step into that role. What lessons can you offer from your own career?

I’ve already written a couple of pieces for Poynter on this topic, so I hope what I say isn’t redundant. [See 5 tips for getting started in data journalism and 10 tools that can help data journalists do better work, be more efficient.]

In the typical progression, a reporter without a technical background discovers a spreadsheet containing valuable information for his or her beat. The reporter learns enough Excel to get some answers from the data by sorting and filtering and then writes the story. Sorting and filtering can take you pretty far, but eventually the reporter wants to look at change over time or some other interesting measure that isn’t available in the raw data.

So the reporter chats up someone who knows a little more Excel and discovers formulas. At some point, the reporter is forced to deal with a dataset that contains multiple tables, and in order to make sense of the relationships among these tables, the reporter opens up a relational database manager, such as Access or SQLite.

And then one day the reporter gets tired of clicking through pages of a website to copy and paste rows into a spreadsheet, so he or she decides to learn enough scripting to scrape the data automatically. Web scraping is a nice gateway task to learning a scripting language such as Ruby, Python or JavaScript, and the reporter is now on the road to becoming a complete news nerd. (Hurrah!)

The point here is that the learning is task-based. At each step, the reporter is doing something real, and there is a payoff in the journalism. I didn’t follow this path. I started learning to code as part of an early job doing technical writing. As a result, I didn’t really learn Excel until I began working with reporters who used it.

Still, very little of what I’ve learned has been in the abstract. I learned to use the tools I needed to do the work I wanted to do, and I’ve found that approach generally effective. Scratching your own itch is a pretty useful approach to creating software and to learning technical skills.

Aspiring journo-coders are fortunate: reporting skills provide a real advantage when getting started with coding. They already know how to ask questions and they know how to do research. (They also probably have superior Googling abilities.) But it’s also nice to have a supportive community to help provide direction, and many of us have found that community in the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR) and its email list, NICAR-L.

Sign up for the annual conference, even if you have to pay your own way. Register for the email list and follow the conversation. And when you can’t find the answer on, one of the brilliant and generous folks on the NICAR list will inevitably provide a clear and thorough explanation that will get you back on your way. Read more


Latest issue of Swallow Magazine features the smells of Mexico City

The New York Times | Swallow Magazine

The latest edition of Swallow Magazine, a rarely published food periodical founded in 2009, features a novel way to experience the smells of Mexico City’s culinary scene: Scratch and sniff stickers.

Maria Newman writes on the New York Times’ Diner’s Journal blog that the new issue, the title’s third in four years, will contain 20 stickers that use the familiar microencapsulation technique to stimulate readers’ olfactory senses. Editor James Casey decided to use the work of Sissel Tolaas, a Norwegian “odor artist” who re-created the smells of 200 Mexico City neighborhoods. Read more


How news can compete with cat videos: 6 lessons for multimedia journalists

Necessity is the mother of invention. That’s certainly been the case with the multimedia work I do. As senior multimedia producer at the Center for Investigative Reporting, I led digital storytelling projects for six years. We were often working with very dense, complex subjects and translating them for a younger, Web-savvy audience with a notoriously short attention span. That wasn’t easy. But the larger challenge was pushing new ideas forward in a traditional news environment.

Breaking out of traditional journalism formats can be difficult—even unpleasant. New methods are often perceived as a threat. But you can’t just slap TV and newspaper stories onto the Web or mobile or tablets and call that “digital” journalism. The content itself needs to change.

If journalism is going to survive, it can’t be driven by formulas—especially formulas built for platforms that are losing relevance and audience. It has to be driven by an entrepreneurial spirit. This means taking risks, and sometimes failing.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned in the last few years working in multimedia journalism:

No. 1: Your dream job probably does not exist. You might have to build it yourself.
I started out as a print journalist. I was drawn into journalism by the beauty of narrative magazine writing—and I still believe it’s a powerful medium. Over the years I dabbled in science reporting, travel writing, book publishing, website production, video journalism, and TV scriptwriting. Compelling storytelling was always the goal, whatever the medium. When I joined CIR in 2007, I came on as a web producer: manager of the website, editor of the blog, and when possible, producer of original Web content. As the organization grew from 8 people to nearly 80, I was able to shape my position into a specialized focus on multimedia. No one handed me a job as the leader of experimental digital storytelling projects—I created the job myself, making it up along the way.

No. 2: If you have new media ideas in an old media environment, you will probably have to fight for them.
My journey into illustrated and animated storytelling started recently, in 2010. We were working on a project about the international carbon market, which allows greenhouse gas polluters to purchase credits to offset their pollution. Pretty complex stuff. One of the reporters, Sarah Terry-Cobo, approached me about creating a multimedia feature. This was a story about things that were invisible—carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases—being assigned a monetary value in an exchange market system. How do you tell a visual story about that? We started talking about animation. We looked at “The Story of Stuff” and some other successful animated explainers online. We wrote a script and began contacting artists.

Some people at CIR didn’t understand what we were trying to do. One senior manager tried to talk me out of it. Was it worth spending money on this? Where would it go? Who would watch it? We were riding into the Wild West of the Web, and there was no precedent at CIR for what we were doing. But Sarah and I pushed forward. We connected with a fantastic illustrator and animator, Arthur Jones, and wrestled together a budget for his services.

No. 3: There aren’t established distribution channels for multimedia journalism. So you’ll have to market the hell out of your work online via social media.
When we finally launched the animated feature, “The Price of Gas,” in June of 2011, it initially had a slow start online. We put it out on YouTube, Vimeo,, and other Web channels, but we had no official distribution partner. The five-minute feature followed a single gallon of gasoline from the moment it was pumped out of the ground as crude oil in Saudi Arabia, through export, refining, and transport, until it was pumped into an automobile at a gas station in California—adding up external costs along the way. We started pushing it hard on social media. I sent it to just about every journalism contact I had.

Later that week it started to roll across the Web: Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, Grist, Time magazine, Fast Company, and other publications posted it on their websites, or blogged about it. Those high-profile embeds led to more re-posting. Every time gas prices were back in the news, so was our cartoon. It soon reached more than 100,000 views and won multiple journalism awards — our first online hit.

Two more animated explainers followed: One explored government surveillance of everyday citizens, another tracked the eco-footprint of one hamburger. “The Hidden Costs of Hamburgers” quickly surpassed “The Price of Gas” as CIR’s most viewed online video — today it has more than 170,000 views. I worked with illustrator/animator Arthur Jones on both of those features, too.

No. 4: Producing content for a new platform means the audience is different, the user experience is different. Therefore the editorial approach should be different.
The animated explainers were clearly a hit — and here are the lessons I learned: The most successful animated explainers 1) used quirky graphics and humor 2) to break down complex subjects with broad appeal 3) in an evergreen approach. Some of this goes against traditional journalism instincts. Our most successful features weren’t tied to a news hook, so they stayed relevant online for months, even years. The topics were broad—almost everyone could relate to driving a car with gasoline, or eating beef. And humor helps to make complicated subjects more accessible. These lessons might seem obvious, but to reporters who are often chasing news hooks, and diving deep into very narrow channels, the big picture approach is sometimes overlooked.

No. 5: Obstacles provide great opportunities for innovation.
Then, in the fall of 2012, I found myself facing a new challenge. Reporter Ryan Gabrielson had been investigating California’s state-run institutions for the developmentally disabled for about a year. He’d turned up some amazing, and tragic, human stories. Some of these stories would get brief mention in the newspaper series he was writing.

We were planning for a new story about high rates of sexual abuse in these institutions, but we had nothing visual to work with. Ryan would come to our project meetings and describe the twists and turns of a very dramatic human story: Jennifer, a bipolar and mentally retarded resident at the Sonoma institution, had complained about molestation at the hands of a caregiver; the complaints were largely ignored. Months later, it turned out that sexual abuse had indisputably occurred: Jennifer was pregnant.

Because of the sensitive nature of the case, we decided we wouldn’t identify Jennifer beyond a first name. Her mother agreed to be interviewed, but didn’t want her face or voice used. TV was out of the question; a radio news story would also be difficult. This could have been the end of the road for multimedia, but I didn’t want to give up. Initially I wanted to produce an audio story, using Ryan’s voice for narration, and a voice actor to read the mother’s statements.

We shied away from animation—neither of us wanted to re-create these horrible scenes with moving images. Then we started discussing an e-book approach, using a few tasteful illustrations as visuals. I figured, if we’re using illustrations for the e-book, why not for the whole audio feature? The result was “In Jennifer’s Room,” a haunting story told in a kind of storybook video format, with a layer of audio narration, music, and sound effects laid under a series of still illustrations by artist Marina Luz.

It was an experiment — I had no idea if it would work. I was worried that still illustrations would feel stagnant, but the result was just the opposite. I think the effect of Marina’s illustrations is similar to that of powerful photography. You can sit with the images and absorb the story. Your imagination is engaged. “In Jennifer’s Room” got a lot of attention within the journalism community—and resonated with viewers online. Poynter has written about it three times as an example of innovation in journalism. ProPublica’s MuckReads selected it as one of the best investigative features of 2012. It has already won a national award from The Gracies—for outstanding programming by, for, and about women.

No. 6: If you have a winning idea, keep pushing it forward—and keep evolving.
Right on the heels of that success, I was presented with a new project. CIR’s chairman Phil Bronstein had met and gained access to another anonymous source: the Navy SEAL who shot and killed Osama bin Laden. He was working on a narrative magazine article for Esquire. Could we do something more with the story? It was to be published in less than three weeks. I checked with the illustrator, Marina Luz—was she up for it? We both agreed that big stories like this don’t come along very often. We dove in. Sixteen days later we launched “The Shooter,” another “graphic nonfiction novel” video based on interviews with Bronstein’s source. That video, distributed through The I Files in both English and French, had more than half a million views in barely three weeks. It quickly became the top ranking feature uploaded to The I Files YouTube channel.

Graphic storytelling isn’t new. Editorial cartooning has been around for more than a century. More recently, nonfiction graphic novels and animated films like “Persepolis” have pushed the medium forward and raised its profile with mainstream audiences. All I’ve done is apply some of these same tools to dense, gritty journalism investigations in an attempt to make the subject matter more palatable and less intimidating. It’s like sugar-coating a vitamin. Bringing to light serious, important issues is still the goal. But we can borrow from comedy, mystery novels, art—yes, even entertainment—to make it more appealing. We can’t just shovel out oatmeal and expect people to eat it. We’re out there competing with virtual candy, from cute cat memes to outrageous music videos. So the journalism better taste — I mean, look and sound good.

Many others are experimenting with graphic journalism right now. Cartoon Movement is an online publication dedicated to journalism cartoons. Symbolia is a new iPad magazine doing the same for tablets. After years of indifference—even resistance—to new forms of storytelling, more traditional journalism orgs are now starting to see value in this kind of experimentation. Right now the hot thing is graphic journalism, in a year it will be something completely different. We have to keep pushing the boundaries.

Related: News organizations experiment with ‘illustrated storytelling’ — a new way to tell serious stories | How one illustrator approaches investigative reporting | Poynter News U seminar on illustrated journalism | California Watch tells difficult story with video, tweets (and text)

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Twitter research shows how multimedia increases engagement

To update an old saying for the Twitter era: A picture is worth a thousand characters.

Research by Twitter shows that tweets that include a photo or video receive 3 to 4 times more engagement (retweets, replies, etc.) than those that don’t. Read more


How The Washington Post created a breakout experience for cycling story

The Washington Post on Thursday became the latest news organization to take the increasingly fashionable step of blowing up its article template to present a feature story in a unique, immersive format.

In December, The New York Times blew some minds with its special multimedia presentation of “Snow Fall” — a six-part narrative about skiers trapped in an avalanche.

The Washington Post invented a similarly innovative presentation for sportswriter Rick Maese’s profile of professional cyclist Joe Dombrowski, a talented 21-year-old from the D.C. area who some hope will redeem the sport in a post-Armstrong era.

One section of the story has an interactive map of a cycling route, matched to audio interview clips and Dombrowski’s physical performance data from the ride.

The article presentation is notable for several reasons. Its full-width photos completely immerse the reader; multimedia elements blended throughout the text reinforce that deep experience; and the responsive design adapts to all screen sizes.

I asked Washington Post Information Designer Wilson Andrews, one of 12 Post staffers credited with contributions to the piece, to give us some background on how it came together.

Poynter: Where did the idea for this kind of presentation come from, and what were you aiming to accomplish by doing it this way?

Wilson Andrews: Because last year was an election year, much of what we did then had very specific focus. After the election, we took a step back and were able to broaden that focus somewhat and look to try new things.

This story presented a great opportunity for a new storytelling model that we had never tried. It was a sports feature that didn’t peg on something we normally do, and we had the fortune of a looser deadline because of that. Rick Maese was a great partner to work with, he had a lot of enthusiasm for and partnership with what we were trying to do, so that helps a lot.

Wilson Andrews

We wanted to try a new form because we want to elevate the experience that our readers have. They come to the Post to read stories from some of the best journalists in the world. We want our presentation, visual storytelling and the overall experience that our readers have to match that level of quality. At the root of it, when you plan and design your visuals specifically for a story, it allows for a much better story. It’s why I pursued a career in journalism.

How much time, resources, people went into building this?

Andrews: We started discussing the project in mid-January, about a week before Rick was to travel to Nice to report on Joe. The sports editor on the project, Mitch Rubin, approached me and representatives from other visual departments with the idea that this story could be elevated to a unique presentation. We were looking for opportunities for this format, and decided this story was a great one.

I worked on the design and front-end development of the project and got major art direction and style from Tim Wong and Sarah Sampsel in digital design. I probably started spending a majority of my time on the story in early February, and really crashed on it after we got the first draft a week and a half ago. Gene Thorp and Bonnie Berkowitz from graphics helped report and produce some of the graphics with me. Rick shot video in France, and videojournalist AJ Chavar shot interviews with Joe in Virginia. The footage from these two sources were edited by AJ to create the 5 videos in the piece. We had a freelance photographer shoot photos with Rick when he was in Nice. Our dedicated copy editor David Larimer spent the past week with all the different elements. And then in the past couple days we spun up a new WordPress instance and Yuri Victor and Amarilis Munoz helped me migrate the story prototype into the beginnings of a template that we plan to reuse in the future.

What plugins or other pieces of technology did you use, and how did they make it easier?

Andrews: The backbone of the project uses Bootstrap, an awesome responsive framework developed by Twitter that made it relatively painless to design for all devices. This was probably one of the biggest complexities of the project, that we wanted one page for all devices. And that one page had to look really good on all devices. This was our guiding standard.

As I mentioned, we deployed the project with WordPress, which is super flexible and easy to add features on the fly, especially in the ways we’ve used it at the Post. Yuri Victor and Greg Franczyk in IT get all the kudos for making WordPress work as a great templating engine for us.

One other way we made the page mobile-friendly was to lazy load almost all of the heavy, bandwidth-hogging visuals. We load videos and photos as you approach them in the story. That way, we don’t have to preload dozens of images and five videos when the user gets to the page. This was the biggest mobile performance improver by far.

Does this build off any previous projects? And do you expect to reuse this template in the future?

Andrews: This project was a ground-up, from-scratch implementation. We have a few in-house modifications to Bootstrap, but overall the project was very custom from the start. Now that we’ve done it, we’ve learned a lot, and we fully intend to re-use a large portion of this project to power other enterprise stories and custom presentations. Keep an eye out for much more visual goodness from the Post. Read more


How The New York Times’ ‘Snow Fall’ project unifies text, multimedia

The New York Times is pushing multimedia storytelling in an exciting direction with a new project drawing deservedly high praise.

Snow Fall tells the story of skiers and snowboarders trapped beneath an avalanche in Washington state’s Cascade Mountains.

And it tells that story through text, photos, videos and interactive graphics that blend seamlessly and come alive on the Web page. I talked to Graphics Director Steve Duenes about how they pulled this off.

The goal, Duenes said, was to “find ways to allow readers to read into, and then through multimedia, and then out of multimedia. So it didn’t feel like you were taking a detour, but the multimedia was part of the one narrative flow.”

You can see the difference clearly in this side-by-side comparison. The left side shows how multimedia is segregated in a typical New York Times article (the Sunday Magazine profile of Jerry Seinfeld), and on the right side is the first page of the Snow Fall project.

“Our hope is that there’s some amount of surprise but that this feels kind of natural,” Duenes said. “That it doesn’t seem like a puzzle or something that has to be figured out, but as you read it just makes sense. … The experience sort of absorbs you. That was really the intention — to try to get closer to a seamless and coherent article that included all of the elements that made the article strong.”

This project builds on some precedent.

The Times used a special template for its coverage in 2010 of the U.S. war logs provided by Wikileaks. The Wal-Mart Abroad series investigating the retailer’s bribery practices got a special design treatment. And a magazine feature this October about California agriculture also blew up the template and placed large photos beside the text.

Those were all interesting visual designs, but many of the multimedia elements weren’t actually placed based on the narrative flow. The new Snow Fall project seems like a real step up not just in visual design but in coherent storytelling.

We might see more of this approach bleed into everyday New York Times articles. Deputy Director of Digital Design Andrew Kueneman told me the Times will “continue to release iterative improvements to our standard article templates,” including “the ability to place media and other story components more deliberately alongside the text — among other improvements.”

One of the big keys to pulling the Snow Fall project together was the collaboration between writer John Branch, the sports editors and graphics editors, Duenes said.

To tell a story seamlessly with text and multimedia, those elements have to actually fit into the same narrative flow. That means lots of coordination, rather than just dumping a finished article on the graphics desk.

“As he [Branch] started to write, we were looking at drafts and thinking about the places where it made sense to embed something,” Duenes said. “The multimedia plus the story were moving along parallel tracks. We were communicating often as things were progressing, to see how these things might all catch up to each other.”

Here are some of the graphical elements that enhance the story.

First, the reader is greeted by a full-width header with background video and audio of windswept snow. It’s an almost cinematic scene-setter that pulls the reader into the story.

Further down, a flyover animation transports the reader to the mountains and ski areas where the story takes place. Graphics Editor Jeremy White gathered LIDAR elevation data and satellite imagery for the terrain, created a virtual model and then generated the animation:

And there is a small bio card that accompanies the introduction of each character, showing his or her photo, name, age and occupation. Clicking the card opens a hovering slideshow that helps you get to know that person better.

Those are just some highlights from the first piece of the story. There are five other sections that were published late Thursday afternoon. An e-book version is coming soon, though it will be mostly text-based. The story will also appear in a special print section in the Sunday paper. Read more


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