May 31, 2013

How did The Guardian find a focus for its new multimedia piece, Firestorm?

The project began with inspiration: a striking photograph of a woman and her grandchildren taking shelter from a raging fire in the water under a jetty. The photograph came to represent what Australian officials refer to as “The Angry Summer,” the hottest season on record in that nation’s history. That season affected thousands of people in Tasmania, and has become a talking point about climate change.

Feature writer Jon Henley and video producer Laurence Topham went to Tasmania to find the story behind that photo and others. When they returned, they worked with the Guardian’s multimedia and interactive teams to fuse words, video footage, pictures and audio into a rich interactive feature.

The photo that helped inspire The Guardian’s project. Firestorm tells the story of how this family survived a wildfire that devastated their community. The project melds video, text and graphics in six chapters.

“I think you have to capture people’s hearts,” Francesca Panetta, special projects editor of interactive storytelling projects, said in a phone interview. “As with all kinds of storytelling, you can’t lose sight of that need to connect and touch people, whether it’s writing or radio or a complicated interactive.”

Firestorm is remarkable for a number of reasons, including the stellar video images and the subtle way that looping video is used behind the written story. The integration between words and video is handled with such finesse that the one doesn’t distract from the other.

“We’re very happy with the subtlety,” Panetta said.

The chapter navigation uses clear images and concise icons and labels, ensuring it’s always clear where you are in the story.

A project like Firestorm or The New York Times’ Pulitzer-winning interactive, Snow Fall, demands considerable resources. Twenty-three people are credited for Firestorm, which was three months in the making — actually a speedy turnaround for a project of this scale.

Many newsrooms don’t have that level of resources, of course. But they can still learn from The Guardian’s process and the project’s experiments with layered storytelling — and figure out ways to do something similar on a smaller scale.

Here are some takeaways from the project:

Figure out how different departments can work together.

Panetta stressed that collaboration was key within the team, which she directed with Interactive Editor Jonathan Richards. “The number of people that were involved and the range of skills were crucial,” she said. “It was incredibly enjoyable, but more importantly, it really shows within the final outcome.”

At times, a designer, videographer, writer, developers and others all sat together in the editing suite as choices were made about how text might run over images.

Having a tightly integrated project team is essential, Richards said in an email interview: “It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of physical proximity, not least because that mini-cycle of ‘try it out, get feedback, iterate, improve’ becomes possible. It’s that mini-cycle, repeated many times over, that is at the core of a lot of successful pieces.”

Henley “was literally sitting next to me, writing into the b-roll,” said Panetta. “Writers don’t usually have things moving behind their words. … It seemed like the best, collaborative situation for us to be able to see these elements come together.” Henley’s full text is included in an e-book version of the project, available through The Guardian.

Start planning early.

The team was formed before the reporting even began. Designer Daan Louter created templates for the interface before Henley and Topham left for Tasmania. “We had to rework the pages when they came back to design it all around this beautiful footage,” Panetta said.

Be prepared for several iterations.

First, the video was cut into very straightforward films, Panetta said. “I worked with them to see how the writing could be meshed with the footage.” Then, she said, “we worked with the interactive team to re-cut the videos after we saw what we had.”

Let the story evolve alongside technical editing.

“Building an interactive that’s very video-heavy has enormous technical things to consider,” Panetta said.

Staffers tackled buffering problems and tested all of the different browsers people might use to view the story. They considered what type of images would work with text floating on top, and how many words would work well on the page. They also did several days of lab testing to see how users would move through the story before posting the project last Sunday.

“With interactives, it’s about where you are taking people’s attention within all of these spheres. The elements have got to fuse together,” Panetta said.

“The feedback loop between such testing and editorial teams is really important,” said Richards. “Editorial teams are traditionally unfamiliar with — and wary of — such testing. It shouldn’t be that way.”

Testing, Richards said, “can be super low-tech—you don’t need a lab. Diligently spending a morning testing [an interactive] with six or seven colleagues can often yield more insight than a week’s worth of design / development / discussion. We made some really high-level tweaks in the days prior to launch as a result of doing that.”

Set goals and figure out how time commitments.

“As with any genre, the story has to be there,” Panetta said. In other words, the content and possible shelf life must warrant the effort required for a large interactive presentation.

In addition to the interactive team led by Richards in the U.K., The Guardian has a group of designers, interactive developers and journalists in New York that works with editorial teams to produce dynamic projects. The company also has a team that helps newsroom staff create e-books.

“We see ourselves as a media organization,” Panetta said, adding that “it’s a craft in itself to combine media to make the story rich and immersive. … We continue to try to see what it is that people like and what they engage with.”

Richards said he thinks “we’re really only at the beginning of what it can feel like to experience ‘media’ in a beautifully integrated and immersive way. … When you consider how important the visual and audio senses are to your experience of the world, it seems crazy not to investigate cleverer, subtler and more compelling ways to make them part of web-based storytelling.”

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Sara teaches in the areas of design, illustration, photojournalism and leadership. She encourages visual journalists to find their voice in the newsroom and to think…
Sara Dickenson Quinn

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