The Best of Multimedia Photojournalism: The Era of the Ear

This year the Best of Photojournalism's Best of the Web contest saw more -- and better -- online journalism presentations from around the world than it ever has before.

It may have also provided us with our first clear look at the future of photographic storytelling in a digital world.

Photography and the Web have always fit together in a very awkward way. While the medium seemed to have so much potential for visual journalists, the reality of dial-up bandwidth initially constrained photo-size to that of a postage stamp. Even though HTML provided a visual layout foundation for photographs from day one, online photographic displays were really impractical.

Increased bandwidth allowed for larger photographs, which led to sites like, one of the first to devote almost its entire home page to a single image. As editors and designers became more comfortable with putting large photographs on the Internet, online photo galleries evolved. For the past several years, this has been the dominant way of displaying visual journalism on the Web.

The problem with photo galleries, to put it bluntly, is that they are galleries. Even when filled with large, high-resolution photos, they are not very interactive. And as a storytelling tool, the photo gallery may not be any more effective than a thoughtfully designed print page. In print, the photos can relate more effectively to one another and to the text story, if there is one. Print also provides context -- a level of "layering" that a sequential, but static, gallery cannot provide.

This year's contest showcases the emergence of a new form, a form that enhances the visual storytelling process. The audio slideshow, popularized with the help of Joe Weiss' wonderful program, Soundslides, has been widely adopted by news organizations' Web sites. A revolution in photography may be at hand.

When coupled with photographs, audio adds context to a story. In the best instances, it does more than let you hear what you are seeing on screen. It gives you another layer of information.

Sound storytelling, especially when it features the voices of the subjects themselves, provides depth and dimension that a series of photographs simply cannot provide.

Audio slideshows enable a series of photographs to relate to a piece of information that is often more useful than another photograph, or a block of text. MediaStorm founder Brian Storm calls audio "captions on steroids." But in the hands of the best, it can be way more than that.

Some of this year's best entries brought the judges to the verge of tears, testimony to the emotional power of the audio-visual combination.

Photography has, throughout history, evolved in lockstep with technology. This may be the first time, however, that the tools driving the evolution aren't guided by the eye. Rather, they are led by the ear.

The elements: a tiny digital audio recorder, and the software that facilitates the combination of audio and picture. The result is a synthesis, a contextual enhancement, a whole new way to tell stories.

Click on the link at right to hear the BOP Best of the Web contest judges and me discuss audio slideshows, the ethics of using certain kinds of audio and the future of online video.

I start off the discussion. Next you'll hear from Josh Meltzer of The Roanoke (Va.) Times. Then Regina McCombs of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. Then Richard Koci Hernandez of the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News. Then Andrew Devigal of The New York Times. And finally, Heather Powazek Champ of Flikr.

And be sure to check out these lists of entrants and, of course, winners.

  • Keith Jenkins

    Keith W. Jenkins came to NPR in July 2008 as the Supervising Senior Producer for Multimedia. In this role he oversees the multimedia unit of, responsible for the photography and videography throughout the site.


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