Experimenting with digital storytelling

Improv actors, a soundtrack and very little text. Is this the future of online journalism?

Consider what staid old Fortune magazine has been doing lately, in collaboration with the online magazine Flyp Media. Flyp has turned some of Fortune’s editorial content into imaginative multimedia features, like this piece on the Bernie Madoff investment scam. Fortune executive editor Steve Koepp told the AP, “It’s just an exciting new way to present the information to the reader. It’s a little taste of the future.”

Using Flash animation, video and other multimedia tools, Flyp has been telling stories online for about a year. The company is financed by Mexican billionaire Alfonso Romo Garza, a member of Forbes’ board of directors, who also funds the Spanish-language Web magazine Reporte Indigo.

Senior editor Matthew Schaeffer describes Flyp’s stories as “experiences.”

The idea isn’t just to write a story and then add a video or an audio piece. It’s to really figure out the best way to conceptualize these stories as multimedia pieces.

Flyp may have an advantage over traditional media companies because its material is published only online. No one there has to worry about how the story will look in the newspaper or on TV. But the magazine’s approach underlines the importance of thinking differently from the start when you’re planning to produce multimedia journalism.

Visualizing survey results

Surveys often lead to fascinating stories, but the data behind them can be hard to convey in an interesting way. The recent Pew Forum report on religion in American life is a classic example. pew-religion1

The survey found that more than half of Americans say religion is very important in their daily lives, attend religious services regularly and pray every day, but that a majority of Americans are not dogmatic about their beliefs. The report included a chart (left) showing how people of different faiths interpret their religion’s teachings.  Useful information but dull as dishwater.

USA Today took the same information and made it both attractive and interactive online.

usatoday-religion-3

Not only can you compare responses from different faith groups, you can sort the results to make the comparisons even  clearer at a glance. Every major question in the survey has been illustrated this way, giving users the opportunity to explore the answers that interest them most. Nice work!

Mapping the recession

nyt-recession-map2Maps can show the scope of a story in a way that words and pictures alone cannot. The New York Times has produced a simple map that shows the impact of unemployment across the country, county-by-county. Roll-over boxes show how the unemployment rate has changed from a year ago.

As the caption notes and the map makes clear, “Job losses have been most severe in the areas that experienced a big boom in housing, those that depend on manufacturing and those that already had the highest unemployment rates.”

usa-loans-mapUSA Today combines a map of home loans with a timeline “scrubber” that lets users compare data from 2000 and 2007. It’s a dramatic illustration of the huge increase over that time period in mortgages that were four times greater than the applicant’s annual income.

CNN has a series of maps that make the state-by-state impact of the recession easy to grasp at a glance, showing unemployment, state budget deficits and foreclosures.

cnn-economy-trackerEmbedded in the maps are personal stories, like that of Fai Nomaaea [left], who lost her rented home when the owner defaulted on the mortgage. Additional maps show the estimated effect of the federal stimulus bill on jobs in each state. It’s a great example of a “sticky” site giving users a lot to explore.

Please let us know if you’ve produced or seen other recession-related maps so we can share more good examples.

Using nat sound online

In TV news, natural sound is the other part of every picture–even if the sound is silence. You have to capture it by getting a mic close enough to pick up good quality ambient sound. Then you have to use it, up full or under narration and sound bites.  It’s important, because while video can show what happened, it takes natural sound to help viewers experience what happened.

How you edit with audio makes a huge difference to the viewer’s experience. TV editors often use a technique that’s sometimes called an “L-cut” to sneak audio from the scene that’s coming up next into the scene that’s just ending. The audio foreshadows where the story is going and draws the viewer along, making the edit seem less jarring.

That same technique can be used effectively online when using full screen text in lieu of narration.  When text graphics pop up with no audio, the viewer may feel like the story has come to a dead stop. So try adding some natural sound from the video that’s coming up right after the graphic to keep your online stories moving.

Want an example? Check this video at the Washington Post.

[If anyone can tell me how to embed a Brightcove video, I’ll be happy to do it.]

Inaugural multimedia

The Washington Post is already up with a very cool interactive map and timeline of President Obama’s inauguration. TimeSpace lets users “experience the events of Inauguration Day through photos, video and text from specific locations.”

timespace

Students from the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism are helping with the Post coverage.  According to the school, all of the journalists working on TimeSpace are equipped with a GPS device making it possible to upload video and photos of the event as it happens with the exact time and location of the coverage.

American University students are contributing to Inauguration Report, a project of CBS News and NPR, along with the people behind TwitterVision.  AU students with Flip cameras are shooting video for the project, which also uses GPS technology to map the location of submissions.  What an amazing opportunity for the students from both schools to have a piece of this story.

There are no doubt dozens of amazing multimedia projects being created today. Let us know of others we should highlight.

Best of multimedia 2008

Here’s one year-in-review list you won’t want to toss out with the empties on New Year’s Day.  Poynter’s Regina McCombs has posted links to multimedia projects you may have missed and they’re well worth exploring.

Her categories include map-based storytelling like the Iowa tornado coverage we mentioned here, as well as interactive graphics, video interactives and “games for smart people.”  One game I particularly like is Minnesota Public Radio’s “You be the judge” feature that lets users decide whether challenged ballots in the undecided Coleman-Franken Senate race should be accepted or thrown out.

I also loved the AARP “Best of 1968” interactive, subtitled “the year that rocked our world.”  It might not be wise to admit this but I scored “groovy” on the pop quiz.  Ah yes, I remember it well.  [Anyone who can name the musical that last line comes from should probably take this “50s facts” quiz.]

Happy New Year.

Online award winners

The judges have spoken, and the Online News Association has named its 2008 award winners.  As my colleague Deb Wenger pointed out in an earlier post, there were few broadcast finalists. In the end, only one of them won.  CNN.com took the award for general excellence (large site).  The judges called it “one of the more dynamic destinations out there. One that takes user content seriously and integrates it into the whole, opening a new era of networked content.” One judge predicted “everyone will copy it.”‘

Newspapers swept most of the other awards, including a new one this year for best online video presentation.  That award went to the Oregonian for its feature “Living to the End.”

Special congratulations to the two student journalism winners: UNC-Chapel Hill & Universidad de los Andes for South of Here, and Taylor Hayden of Western Kentucky University for Closer to Home: A Daughter Becomes Caregiver.  Judges said the UNC entry had “excellent journalism, stunning photography, creative navigation, elegant structure, refreshing and enlightening content, all superbly executed technically.”  Hayden drew praise for “well-done video, still imagery within and a spare design that works well for the project.”

Award-winning multimedia

The Online News Association has once again released its nominees for the annual Online Journalism Awards.  The complete list can be found on the ONA site, but we’ve included links to the finalists’ entries for breaking news, overall excellence, multimedia features, online video presentation and student journalism.

For broadcasters, it’s disturbing to note how few radio or TV news outlets are represented on the list.  Just five of the entries included below were created in broadcast newsrooms, and just one of those at the local level (WRAL-TV).  What’s wrong here when there are no TV news operations nominated in the online video presentation category?

Still, it’s worth browsing all the entries to see some of the best in multimedia storytelling.

 Breaking News, Large Site

Breaking News, Medium Site

 General Excellence, Large Site

 General Excellence, Medium Site

 General Excellence, Small Site

Multimedia Feature, Large Site

 Multimedia Feature, Medium Site

 Multimedia Feature, Small Site

Online Video Presentation

Student Journalism

Web story airs on NBC

A quiet revolution is underway at NBC News. Earlier this month, a story about a baby penguin that was created originally for the Web aired on the weekend Nightly News. Tim Peek, executive producer for new media at NBC’s Peacock Productions, calls it “one of those small events that may well mark a watershed toward a truly cross-platform world.”

We’ve already noted the work of NBC’s “digital correspondent” Mara Schiavocampo, who files stories both online and on the air.  What’s different now is that NBC has aired a story that was shot, edited and voiced by a Nightly News producer, Clare Duffy. That may not sound like such a big deal, but it’s a radical change for a network news division.

In a post at MediaShift, Peek says NBC has been “pushing the digital journalism agenda as a way to cast a broader newsgathering net and lower production costs.”  Many long-time journalists at NBC have been wary of the effort, he says, worrying that it may compromise quality.  As Peek himself notes, the digital journalist method is efficient but “something’s got to give.”

Not even the best digital journalists can shoot, edit, write and report as well as the dedicated teams of experts who still dominate TV news production. The biggest compromise comes in technical quality. The video from DV cameras is softer than beta; the sound is not a sharp. Producer editing on low-end systems is a stripped-down affair; straight cuts and dissolves. Stand-ups and tracking from producers also can suffer. And time pressure puts everything under the gun — even though the DJ model is more efficient, it still often takes more time to get it all done well.

But in many cases, Peek argues, none of these compromises make much of a difference, and the result is a story that’s plenty good enough for any medium.

This has the potential to dramatically alter the economics of network news production by allowing much broader use of these web-oriented stories. It also means that news organizations can more easily use their content on whatever platform makes the most sense, without recutting, revoicing or repackaging to meet the quality standards of the high-end platforms (stories can now just as easily travel up the quality stream from web to broadcast as down it).

I can hear some VJ advocates now, saying “Duh!” and “About time!”  But even Duffy, the producer/reporter of the NBC penguin story, has concerns about a wholesale move to “solo” journalism:

What I do worry about is the loss of the collaborative nature of what we do…There’s a reason the best TV has been made that way since its inception and it’s something that should not be chucked out wholesale as irredeemably ‘old media’ simply because people are overly entranced by the idea of saving money. Losing that will yield a product that’s not worth very much.

There’s truth is, they’re both right. Some stories are best told by a solo journalist with a small camera; other stories turn out better when developed by a collaborative team.  But the “digital journalist” revolution is already well underway, and it’s good to see some recognition of that at the network level.

Small newsroom, big results

Coincidence or Cluster,” an investigation by the Northwest Herald in Crystal Lake, Illinois, proves you don’t have to be a big news organization to make an online splash. The small-circulation daily put together a meaty online version of its six-part series on a suspected brain cancer cluster in nearby McCullom Lake, including videos, an interactive map, timelines, documents and background information on the disease and chemicals involved.

The series itself is thoroughly reported and told through the experience of people most directly involved in the story. The online package takes a bit of a risk by having videos default to play automatically and at full-screen size. Didn’t work for me when I was traveling, but on a high-speed connection the video quality is outstanding. One of my favorite design elements is the drop-down menu for “related content,” which tells users exactly what they’ll get if they click on “documents” or “more information.” Nicely done.