December 24, 2015

2015 was a year full of surprises in media innovation. The New York Times launched virtual reality storytelling experiences that made it possible to stand in the middle of events occurring half a world away. It became easier than ever to have the most relevant, recent and recommended stories curated by algorithms that learn what kind of stories you’re interested in and delivered through Google Now, Pocket, This., and countless other reading apps. Many publishers, including the one I work for, partnered with Facebook to create Instant Articles, a reading experience meant to bypass most mobile sites’ lengthy loading times to appear instantly for readers within the Facebook app.

Though these are all exciting, these platforms weren’t the most surprising things to happen this year. The mediums I was the most impressed by in 2015 provide just the right amount of constraints and unlimited possibilities for creative voices: email and audio.

Compared to these new platforms, these two could not be more retro. For many people, email is the worst, slowest and most ineffective way to communicate with other people. Email gets randomly eaten by spam filters, most email senders have yet to learn etiquette with reply all and ccing, and it’s difficult to manage inboxes, especially if that’s the best way people know how to contact you. I set a permanent vacation responder on my own personal inbox after drowning in personal emails, pen pal correspondence and friendly requests that were starting to become exhausting to keep up with. Before this year, I never would have guessed what a good storytelling platform email is from the general public attitude about it.

However, email surprised me a lot this year, and I am a new believer in this medium based on how much has been going on in that space. Independent newsletters have become the new personal blogs. They provide a point of view on any niche topic, promote the writer’s brand, commit creators to a recurring deadline to keep readers, and the best ones reflect a strong voice that just needed to be on the right platform to connect with their audience. And like personal brand sites, there have been hugely successful services (TinyLetter and MailChimp) that help set this production up for free or very little. Besides podcasting, it’s one of the best ways to directly build an audience, learn how to write well with just enough limitations and commit to your own public beat with a deadline.

I now subscribe to about 10 newsletters that send daily and weekly. They range from traditional news with and without a side of commentary (Quartz and The Skimm), to industry favorites (Today in Tabs and Lenny Letter), to ones created by independent writers (Nicole Belanger’s Girl Gang Missives, Kelsey McKinney’s Liner Notes, and Stacy-Marie Ishmael’s Awesome Women). These newsletters succeed at a really tricky medium with many constraints. Even if they represent a brand known for creating content on another platform, even the super users who read most stories need a reason to opt in on this frequent format and open these emails. Headline writing for the subject line is as important as headline writing for social and the site, the canvas has endless opportunities to tell stories in multiple user experiences. It has to be more convenient or more interesting to skim the newsletter that curates the top stories in that topic than it is to take the time to gather that point of view on the reader’s own. If the newsletter lacks either a voice or newly packaged content, that reader might as well and will unsubscribe to gather information from a different point of view.

Similarly, podcasting has become more than a medium for large public radio organizations. Serial became the first podcast that won a prestigious Peabody Award this year and netted a higher audience than its parent program, This American Life, which is usually unbeatable in iTunes. It was a compelling mix of true crime storytelling and incredibly involved reporting that hooked a giant audience and brought back radio drama. Due to its influence and popularity, it even caused legal officials to continue investigation in the case.

In addition to public radio alumni, this was a huge year for independent creators in podcasting. It’s become a limitless space for writers to produce compelling stories on a recurring deadline, work on their physical voices along with what they have to say, and develop interviewing skills. The barrier for entry is a little higher than newsletters because of the need for a decent recorder and headphones, but there have been plenty of audio stories and interviews that have been recorded on a phone, edited and uploaded. Hugely successful writers and comedians talk to hugely successful guests in garages and lairs. Charismatic best friends talk to each other over modern-day long distance calls. Presidents and presidential candidates take an hour or more to answer tough questions and agree to be interviewed by podcast hosts.

One of the unique things about podcasting is the way creators directly build a relationship by talking to their community, and their community talks back. Getting tickets to Another Round podcast’s live show earlier this month in New York was as difficult as any other gigantic concert, as tickets sold out in a few minutes after opening to the public. Attending a live event for podcasts is a treat for like-minded listeners to meet one another, see their favorite people who talk to them every week in their headphones and take a peek into the production process of these shows.

I write about media innovation each month, and to me that means paying attention to both new and existing ways to tell stories. Lots of people are trying to figure out the best way to come up with the best, most innovative ways to tell stories, but it would be a mistake to move toward the new shiny methods and away from familiar platforms. It’s been a great year to hear, read and watch stories in all kinds of ways. And with the potential for anyone to reach people online, 2016 will be the year to figure out how to transport readers to wherever the story is, whether that’s in the middle of a peace vigil, in the courtroom awaiting a life-changing verdict or sitting in a living room with their favorite storytellers.

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Elite Truong is on the Vox Products team. She writes monthly about innovation for Poynter.
Elite Truong

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