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, Blip.tv, 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.