December 3, 2013

When Planet Money embarked on a massive reporting project tracking the making of a simple T-shirt — from the cotton fields of Mississippi to Bangladeshi garment factories to shipping containers crossing oceans — an interactive, documentary-style presentation seemed like the obvious end result.

Indeed, NPR hasn’t reinvented the wheel with “Planet Money Makes A T-Shirt,” but it delivers a remarkably smooth experience in an age of bumpy, “you want me to consume all THAT?” story forms with overwhelming numbers of moving parts.

“Interactive documentary is like a minefield — so many of them are flashy stories that people don’t want to sit with or read,” Alex Blumberg, the project’s executive producer, explained in a phone interview. “So we decided to be really brutal about the length. Things are changing on the web, but people don’t go to the web to watch a 20-minute documentary.”

That’s one strength of the project’s storytelling, and a reason I consumed it all in one uninterrupted sitting. (Well, make that one sitting and one lying: I read the first two chapters on my laptop, reached a convenient stopping point and switched to a phone — a cheap Nokia Lumia 520 no less — to seamlessly resume the story in bed.)

Readers encounter plenty of gold coins (Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tool No. 32) along the way — from animations to charts to photos — that keep them engaged with the story and rewarded for continuing.

At the same time, despite the wealth of features, the narrative remains linear: At no point does the reader face tough choices about whether to continue reading or to pause for a video in the middle of the text. Blumberg told Poynter the structure of the interactive documentary purposefully limits the number of anxiety-inducing choices while still giving readers control over the pacing. Videos don’t autoplay, but they’re placed naturally at the top of each chapter, allowing readers to move from video to text/graphics and back to video again.

Blumberg said the subject matter made visuals particularly crucial for the T-shirt project. “There were parts of the story that felt very visual to us, and when you’ve been doing radio for a long time you start instinctively leaving things out because you know it’s not going to work on radio,” he said. Among the advantages: “Radio is really good at getting an intimate connection, but it works much better if people are speaking the same language.”

The other big reason to use video in the T-shirt project, Blumberg said, was to convey scale. In one of the radio pieces that branches off the interactive site, Robert Smith and Jess Jiang do a nice job of describing the immensity of 4,000 acres of cotton, but nothing beats flying over the fields yourself — which is how the video documentary begins.

What’ll be tough to replicate at any other news organization — or again at NPR, for that matter — is the project’s funding. Kickstarter contributions of $590,807 brought in almost 12 times the money NPR was seeking, enabling significant reporting and sophisticated production in partnership with NPR’s new combined multimedia and news apps team (Source, the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project, has a Q&A with Brian Boyer about his team’s role).

The metrics so far show hundreds of thousands visiting the site on its first day and spending up to 30 minutes with the story, Blumberg said, which sounds like evidence that the storytelling resonates with readers. But the project benefited from considerable upfront funding and the many donors invested in seeing the result of the Kickstarter campaign. The project is uniquely social, too, with readers sharing photos of themselves in the Planet Money T-shirts via Twitter and Instagram:

Blumberg said the jury’s out on whether this kind of storytelling can pay for itself in other ways, but certainly “Planet Money Makes A T-Shirt” proves that in-depth reporting and deep collaboration between reporters and NPR’s new visuals team can yield well-balanced, immersive storytelling.

Related: NPR combines interactive, multimedia desks into one | Planet Money’s crowdfunded T-shirt project surpasses goal by more than $200,000

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Sam Kirkland is Poynter's digital media fellow, focusing on mobile and social media trends. Previously, he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times as a digital editor,…
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