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.
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?”
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.