August 12, 2002
Category: Archive

From February 4 to March 3, 1996, my AIDS series, “Three Little Words,” ran in the St. Petersburg Times. The series was experimental in both content and form. The series was praised and criticized for its candor on sexual issues. And it was embraced and rejected for its structure: a book-length study run in 29 consecutive chapters. The chapters were remarkable for their brevity, some as short as 850 words.

The editors of the Times decided to also run the story, one day late, on its website. In addition, the paper used its audiotext service, Timesline, to help readers keep up with the series. In my own voice, I recorded daily messages summarizing recent chapters and the story as a whole.

The use of new technologies advanced and enhanced the series in several ways:

1. Value of Short Chapters.

Many people testified that the short chapters worked for them, both in print, but especially on the web. Each chapter filled no more than four screens. a four-minute read that helped busy readers follow the story.

2. Linear Narrative on the Web. The 2:00 a.m. story.

While there were no hypertext links within the story itself, the tug of the linear narrative proved irresistible to many readers. Times technicians could tell that folks were trying to access new chapters at 2:00 a.m., presumably to find out what happened next.

3. Solving the Snowbird Dilemma.

Florida is know for its tourists and snowbirds (winter visitors). Many of them found the story in St. Pete, but wanted to follow it back in their home towns in Canada or Michigan. Those with access to the web had the perfect tool to keep connected.

4. The Author’s Voice.

Almost 10,000 callers used Timesline to keep up with the series, including more than 700 on the penultimate day. More than 300 called in after the series concluded to listen to a recording of Frequently Asked Questions. Times editors speculate that the service provided not only information, but something else readers crave: the voice of the author.

5. Democracy of Response: characters, unused sources, world community.

Readers on the website could leave messages — and they did. It was most helpful, and unusual, to be getting feedback on the series while it was in progress. The messages came from readers in St. Petersburg, and as far away as Bilbao, Spain. Messages came from personal friends, people who knew characters in the story, one character himself, and folks who had particular interest in AIDS, sexual culture, and the places about which I was writing.

6. Feedback in Progress.

Most writers of series must wait until publication concludes before letters to the editor are received. On the web, this feedback is almost simultaneous. This has many implications: would a writer change the content of, say, chapter 15, based on responses to chapter 11? Can people who leave messages be contacted as sources who can further enrich the reporting?

7. Home Town Connection.

One rap on the Internet is it creates virtual communities, but not real ones. But I received messages from college students and other out-of-towners who were connected to an important story in their home-town newspaper through the web.

8. The Author as Nucleus.

It was thrilling, and exhausting, to be the nucleus of a great atom of activity. I was given permission, and encouragement, to work directly with editors, photographers, designers, audiotext managers, folks in interactive media, and people developing promotional advertisements. They respected my position as author and were eager to converse about giving the story the greatest possible impact.

Access to “Three Little Words” on the St. Petersburg Times website:

  • Total pages requested for 29 days: 24,706

Requests broken down:

  • Front page requests: 6, 743
  • Q&A: 74
  • Author: 367
  • Resources page: 106
  • Timesline information (audiotext service): 132
  • The rest were individual chapters

Requests for Daily Chapters (there were 32 chapters, including prologue, epilogue, and postscript)

  • High of 941 for Prologue
  • Low of 316 for Postscript

With some small variations, numbers gradually decline over the 29 days. (Checking to see if single copy sales of the newspaper went up.)

The Times folks suggest that these numbers are deflated, perhaps by as much as 30 percent, since some people gain access to the story through services other than the Times website.

They consider the 24,706 pages requested to be healthy traffic.

During the same period, 46,000 news pages were requested. About 22,000 requests for information on the Florida Aquarium.

About 40 messages were left discussing the series. (As opposed to about 28 letters mailed to the St. Pete Times). Many personal e-mail messages, letters not for publication, and phone messages were directed to me, to the newspaper, and to characters in the story