The New Storytelling, and a New Start for Journalism

Storytelling is changing all the time.

It seems like every few months, someone creates a new product, or a new innovation that enhances the way information is shared and experienced. New technology, new outlets, new systems, and new platforms.

And on the surface, that can be a scary thought. So many journalists were trained with the idea that information needs to be shared a certain way. Print articles need to be a certain length, with specific leads and structure. TV packages need to be 90 seconds and contain two interviews, short sentences, and tight editing. Journalists are accustomed to doing things a certain way, because that’s the way things have always worked.

So when new ideas come along, journalists circle the wagons, wanting to protect the “history” of their chosen medium.

“Everything is going to turn into a listicle! I can’t be expected to write AND shoot video! How the hell does this Periscope doodad work?!?”

New advances are unfortunately heralded as the “end of all things.”

And that’s a shame, because we are living in an era where a journalist can finally tell a story completely. We have tools at our disposal that allow us to share:

1. In-depth information

2. …packaged in a visually engaging way

and 3. delivered faster and more directly than ever.

For the first time in history, we don’t need to create lines of separation between a “print” story or a “TV” story or an “online” story. All of those elements can be combined, shaped, and delivered in a new way.

Rather than be afraid of it, embrace it!

Luckily, the best innovators already are.

I first noticed this convergence in 2013, when the New York Times published it’s feature “A Game of Shark and Minnow,” about a disputed region in the South China Sea.

Screen shot 2015-04-01 at 11.11.49 AMFrom the moment the story loaded, you knew it was something unique. Instead of just a photo or a title, the start of the story was a looping video – putting us right on a boat as it sped through the sea. We could hear the motor running and see the man standing at the bow looking out.

As we scrolled down, we read the text of the story, only to encounter more interactive elements – maps that zoomed as we read, more videos that played automatically, illustrating the story at the perfect moment our minds needed it.

This wasn’t just “here’s this long story, and a link to a related video and photo galleries.” This was combining all those elements into a richer, fuller, and more interactive experience. You keep scrolling, because you want to learn more.

NPR is taking this concept a step further. And the best example of this is “Life After Death” about the effects of Ebola on a small village in Liberia.

Screen shot 2015-04-01 at 11.16.38 AMNotice the button under the title. Clicking “Begin” takes you on a journey.

Rather than overload the reader with mountains of gray text and thousands of words, “Life After Death” is picture-driven. The visuals of the villagers tell the story. As the reader clicks through, the pictures are accompanied by short paragraphs, chunks of text, maps and even audio interviews with the villagers. All of them work together to tell the story. The text chunks are short – usually only a sentence – so it doesn’t lose readers’ attention. The audio clips are also short – only about 30 seconds apiece – so no one is lost. And the visuals are big, bold, and attention-grabbing – when you look into someone’s eyes, you are locked in as a reader.

Like a video, it’s visually stimulating. And like a print story, the reader can go back and forth easily, re-reading information or skipping ahead.

It’s the definition of multimedia storytelling. And it’s told in a way that keeps people engrossed (even those with short attention spans).

Sometimes this means that you can even let the story tell itself. Look no further than NPR’s “A Photo I Love” featuring astronaut Reid Wiseman.

Screen shot 2015-04-01 at 11.25.03 AMIt’s the same concept as “Life After Death,” except once you click “Begin” this story plays like a video. Music is laid on top of Wiseman’s stunning pictures from the International Space Station, and his tweets are featured on screen.

Again, Wiseman could have just explained this in a profile piece, with an accompanying photo gallery. But something like this is just so much cooler.

NPR has created a feature called “Look at This” featuring more stories told in this unique visual style. I highly recommend checking out their Tumblr site for updates, and see the new ways that journalists are taking their storytelling abilities to new places.

Pieces like this came about because journalists stopped thinking like “print reporters” or “TV reporters” and started thinking like storytellers. It’s different than the way things have always been done, and that’s a damn good thing.

How can anyone think examples like these are the “end of journalism?”

It’s not the end, it’s the beginning of something new and wonderful.

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