March 5, 2018

In last week's Try This! newsletter, I wondered where all the good digital stories had gone.

It's been five years since the New York Times published "Snow Fall," a project that digital reporters are sick of hearing about but that inarguably changed the game in online storytelling. Nothing since then has seemed to pack as much of a "wow factor."

You wrote in to say otherwise. Here are some of your favorite digital stories from the past year and a few stray thoughts about online storytelling in general.

Shameel Arafin, senior director for platform engineering at Meredith Corporation, sent a few powerful pieces that Time published over the past few months.  

  • Finding Home / Heln’s First Year
    • Baby Heln’s story starts with her birth in a Syrian refugee camp in Greece and follows her first year through photos, videos and, most strikingly, a series of text messages between her mother and a journalist from Time. A thin white line moves through the piece and follows the family as they move throughout Europe in search of asylum. The penultimate video, in which Heln is serenaded to “Happy Birthday” in English and Arabic as she turns1, is a long shot that’s charged with emotion.
  • Firsts – Women Who Are Changing the World
    • A surprisingly deep video series about women who are changing the world is fittingly presented in a groundbreaking format, choosing beauty and a hint of chaos in place of the uniformity you usually get with an online video series. Try not to find something to connect with here, I dare you.
  • The Opioid Diaries
    • With a number of fantastically reported and presented opioid stories this year, it’s hard to stand out. That’s why James Nachtwey’s piece is so impressive. By letting raw images from across the country and a few sparing words from drug users and their families tell the story, Nachtwey brings the crisis into our cities and our homes. (Also, props to Time for having a video player that actually works.)

Libby Powell, the founding director and CEO of On Our Radar, wrote to share some stories that the London-based “communications agency for unheard communities” has worked on.

  • Ebola and Back in Touch
    • A departure from the breathless, scared reporting from international outlets during the Ebola crisis, On Our Radar put together a collective of reporters from affected countries who reported via SMS. Then, after Ebola had been contained, built a community-led documentary that kept reporting the story, well after most other reporters had left. The presentation, especially of the latter, is unflinching but also accommodating — it tells the reader how to navigate the story and how long it’ll take.
  • Dementia Diaries
    • This story redefines what a “wow-worthy” digital package can be. On Our Radar collects audio diaries from people who have dementia and posts the audio with a transcription. Participants can use their own phones or a special 3D-printed phone that’s easier to use. And its presentation is purposefully spare to make it more dementia-friendly.
  • The Lives Behind the Label
    • This collaboration with the New Internationalist adeptly presents the story of female garment workers in Bangladesh in a microsite reminiscent of every online clothing store you’ve ever seen. The women, who feel trapped between “the global narrative of their oppression and the local stigma of their over-emancipation as working women,” tell their stories in their own voices.

Some stories are interesting for the odds they beat to be published, like Beyond the Border: The Opioid Pipeline, which Céline McArthur emailed to tell me about.

McArthur was working on a special report about drugs in New Hampshire when her station, NH1 News, ceased its broadcasting operations. So she worked with her photographer using their personal DSLR cameras, a bank of GoPros and a laptop to produce the piece on her own.

“I then convinced our competition, WCVB NewsCenter 5, to air it,” she said. “So few in-depth stories exist because journalists have to use their own time, money and resources to do them right, or at all.”

Renée van der Nat, who is working on a Ph.D. on interactive and multimedia storytelling in journalism in the Netherlands, thinks that we’re just getting used to longform stories.

“What I think is happening isn’t necessarily that journalists have stopped making these type of stories, but rather that they are becoming a staple part of newsrooms, and as such no longer inspire awe in the way that Snow Fall did,” she said.

Van der Nat is collecting these types of stories to see how they develop. She has 110 so far.

“I see a trend that newsrooms are making these stories smaller, and more contained, thinking that users will appreciate this,” she said, noting that “no one ever does any user research.”

She also shared a few stories. They’re in Dutch, so I can’t tell you much about them. The first is about a major power failure in Amsterdam and caught my attention because the background mimics the color of the sky as dawn approaches, which van der Nat said mirrors the time in which the story took place.

The second is a map and network of the drug economy in the Netherlands. I wish I could read it because the story structure and format are undeniably unique (check out this interactive 3D model of a marijuana greenhouse).

Lewis Millholland, a business and agriculture reporter at the Northern Virginia Daily, reminded me that the Washington Post published the definitive piece about the gender wage gap last year. Millholland praised it for its “excellent use of data and visualization to step-by-step address common claims.”

Bridget Thoreson, who works at Kalmbach Publishing Co., said her team “enjoyed the way ‘Generation Screwed’ from Huffington Post’s Highline handled a longform story online.” The piece mixes just about every medium available online with some creative web design that feels distinctly millennial to tell the story of my generation’s plight.

Peter Yeung, a London-based freelance journalist, tweeted at us to share his newsletter. It’s called 1801 and it covers digital storytelling and a whole bunch of other good stuff.

It was published in 2016, but I wanted to share my favorite digital piece from the past few years — Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet’s The Baby in the Plastic Bag. It’s a multi-part, globe-spanning story of a baby who was discovered abandoned in a graveyard in 1991 and all of the things that have happened since.

There’s also a case to be made that it wouldn’t be a bad thing if we saw fewer of these stories. Many of them pose significant problems to people with impairments or sensitivity to motion. Eileen Webb asked for web producers to please provide a more static version of them in an article for Source last week.

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Ren LaForme is the Managing Editor of He was previously Poynter's digital tools reporter, chronicling tools and technology for journalists, and a producer for…
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