In the spirit of this quote
Building thorough chronologies in your research process can help a writer see unexpected connections
from Amy O’Leary, I thought I’d post this follow-up to Wired.com’s interview profile “Smart Readers Are Too Distracted to Dig Smart Content” by Raw File’s Pete Brook. To make those “unexpected connections,” I thought it may be helpful to share some follow-up thoughts as well as a few exchanges I had with friends and industry colleagues regarding the Q&A. Here we go:
Photo is by Thomas Patterson. He took some great photos of the Second Story studio space that didn’t make the edit. It’s a great environment for collaboration and creativity. How Magazine recognized it as one of the 5 Creative Workspaces in the Western U.S. And our very own creative director for envrionments Daniel Meyers wrote a post about the future of studio design on AIGA. In any case, I appreciate Second Story for allowing the photo shoot to happen in the studio.
For six years he was the Director of Multimedia at the New York Times, developing groundbreaking interactive news packages like the Emmy award-winning A Year At War.
I’m compelled to point out that A Year at War was a deeply collaborative project that pulled together an enormously talented team. Here’s a behind the story panel at the duPont Awards.
The Times’ award winning Snow Fall is a prime example of users’ deep engagement and cinematic interactives on a linear narrative.
In the slight chance folks missed it, the Source has an excellent Q&A with the team that put together Snow Fall: How We Made Snow Fall.
Even though people are more engaged with the internet, the danger is that users’ focus is fractured.
David Campbell challenged the headline and was craving for evidence regarding this fractured focus. I ended up pointing him to Matt Richtel’s NYTimes series Your Brain on Computers. But I generally agree that we need more research on the impact of media consumption and interactivity.
As for the headline, I enjoyed what others resonated with in their tweets including:
- Ingredients of compelling storytelling in the era of distraction
- Attention and not content is the scarcity challenge
- Insight on keeping distracted audiences engaged
- The past, the present and the future of storytelling
- Today’s media tools, philosophies, distractions, challenges
I’ve found it successful to send out the videographer/photographer with an audio producer… Audio is the backbone to multimedia.
Lexi Mainland gently reminded me that the original Emmy winner was the ground-breaking series One in 8 Million. It was an engagement series where we asked fellow New Yorkers to suggest potential profiles. In addition, the series is a great example of where audio led multimedia and informed the fantastic photography by Todd Heisler.
We talked a lot about creating white papers for the tools we developed. The Times‘ interactive timeline for example could easily be a white paper for licensing out the technology.
Of interest, former senior multimedia producer Zach Wise went on and continued to do amazing work after leaving NYT which included developing Timeline.JS.
Al Tompkins, of the Poynter Institute, often says, “People will tend to remember what they feel rather than what they know,” and I think we’ve lost some of that in some data visualizations.
I’ve cited Al a number of times before. And suspect that I’ll continue to do so. It’s such an insightful thought. The quote is actually: “people always remember what they feel longer than what they know” from his book “Aim for the Heart.”
A Times interactive piece in which we were tried to explain artificial intelligence included a feature that allowed people to play rock-paper-scissors against a computer… Likewise, an interactive about distracted driving allowing people to drive through hurdles and gates — every so often a text would show up and you had to text a response.
Just wanted to provide the links to these interactive pieces and give credit where credit is due.
Both pieces were primarily produced by two amazing journalists: Gabe Dance and Tom Jackson. I miss working these guys. Gabe now leads the interactive team at The Guardian US. Tom makes awesome iOS games with his brothers.
Alma: A Tale of Violence by Miguel Dewever-Plana and Isabelle Fougère won in the Interactive Documentary category of the multimedia contest. It was a good choice.
Five years from now, we’ll look back at Bear 71 and think, “Of course that’s how you navigate.” Bear 71 has introduced new paradigms of interactivity that producer and user are exploring together.
Seriously, if you’re not familiar with the interactive work from the National Film Board, set aside some time today and check out their work: NFB Interactive.
One of our designers at Second Story did a design pitch all in motion graphics… He put it together in a day-and-a-half. That’s the kind of skill-set that I’m blown away by.
Pete Brook covers art and photography for Wired.com’s Raw File blog.
Hope this was helpful.
Do yourself a favor. Give yourself time between jobs if you can. I took five weeks between careers as I transition from journalism at The New York Times to interactive storytelling at Second Story (see: The Next Chapter).
In those weeks, we had a fabulous time with family and vacationed in Italy… said goodbye to our NY friends, moved from Brooklyn to Portland… and explored PDX in search of a home in the NE. It was hectic and, at times, stressful… but a perfect way to shut down a part of your brain to kickstart a new.
I’ve never experienced my email inbox slow down to a trickle. It’s liberating. And switching from one set of “navigation” apps to another was seamless (ie: iTrans NYC to PDX Bus).
It allowed me to reflect a bit of the past. Most immediate, I thought about the wonderful send-off I received including this gift my team produced and gave me on my last day at work. It’s a photo illustration (by Jacky Myint) which captured the teams I put together and managed over the years at The Times. It’s certainly one of the best send-off gifts ever and will be cherished.
(Original photo by Tony Cenicola and contributed photos by members of the team.)
I have to admit, however, that in this last weekend, I’m getting anxious. I’m feeling the need of some normalcy and a routine. But most of all, I’m excited to join the studio at Second Story and to dive right into work. I’m eager to learn and collaborate with the folks who are producing some amazing work. In fact, here’s a short piece that Creative Director David Waingarten produced recently. It’s a great overview of the team members who come from a variety of disciplines and a look at the advanced technology the studio is working on.
Onward to the next chapter.
As announced last week, I’m joining the interactive studio Second Story in Portland, Oregon, resigning as multimedia editor of The New York Times. I appreciate the kind notes from friends and colleagues.
The decision to leave The Times doesn’t come easy. I’ve been in journalism for 22 years, the past six of which have been at The Times. And I’ve had the honor to work alongside some of the smartest journalists in the industry. I’m particularly proud of the team I put together and managed over the years and of our work, which includes some of the most innovative and compelling packages of interactive journalism on the web.
It’s difficult to imagine going anywhere else in the industry after The New York Times. I’ve always known that my time at The Times would be the pinnacle of my journalism career. But I’m now at my “adjacent possible,” Stuart Kauffman’s fabulous theory of untapped potential, or as Steven Johnson describes it:
The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.
The story begins at Chicago Comdex in 1996 when I was on a panel showing our interactive journalism from The Chicago Tribune; I was presenting what might have been one of the earliest interactive graphics. I was on the panel with Brad Johnson, who presented his early interactive work for National Geographic Society including Dinosaur Eggs and River Wild. Blown away, I introduced myself to Brad, who graciously handed me his business card - which was a floppy disc containing this project: Pinch. After picking up my jaw from the floor, I realized then how I wanted to raise the bar in visual journalism and interactive storytelling. (Incidentally, this was the same conference where someone also mentioned a new technology called FutureSplash, which eventually became Flash.)
Throughout my career, I’ve told interactive stories at The Chicago Tribune, launched verticals at Knight Ridder, pushed visual journalism and interaction design at The Poynter Institute, taught multimedia journalism at SFSU and founded Interactive Narratives. The culmination of all those years led to spearheading some of the best interactive narrative and multimedia storytelling at The New York Times.
I’ve kept in touch with Brad and Julie Beeler, founders of Second Story, over the years as their work continued to inspire me. And we have discussed my joining the studio in the past. But the timing didn’t click until now: We’re standing at the cusp of a digital redistribution made possible by rapidly changing narrative and journalistic possibilities. The disruption that is spreading across the media landscape - from journalism to documentaries to education to games - is affecting even philanthropic institutions whose mission is to support journalism.
I see this as a turning point and opportunity. There’s a space between the spectrum of traditional news media on one side and the unfiltered social web in another. This ecosystem will allow journalists, content creators and curators to surface relevant stories and information while context providers and audience will tell their personal connection to the narrative.
My joining Second Story aligns with the studio’s vision of connecting brands and institutions to their audiences through pioneering interactive experiences. Those experiences blend technology and storytelling not only across digital channels and public spaces but also in the digital/analog blurred reality. To borrow the words of Wayne Gretzky (and echoed by Steve Jobs):
A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.
I will miss my colleagues and partners in the newsroom, as well as those on the business side of The New York Times. My time here immensely defines my work and how we tell stories. And I’ve enjoyed and appreciated the tremendous reach and influence the position has afforded me.
The puck is going to an adjacent possible where the ecosystem for news is evolving. And Second Story is in a great position to shape and move that puck forward. In fact, a New York Times article wrote of the studio:
How it invents techniques to use these platforms, and who it recruits to do that work is a journey that large media companies should watch.
It’s official. I’ve submitted my resignation as multimedia editor of The New York Times to join the interactive studio Second Story in Portland, Oregon. Check out their featured work, follow them on twitter (@2storypdx) and watch this Creative Inspiration segment on Lynda.com from 2010.
“The visitor is creating the second story…” - Julie Beeler, Founder
My last day at The Times is Friday, Sept. 7. More details to come next week but in the meantime, there are transitional plans to be made, voter voices to be heard and convention speeches to be delivered.
But admittedly, I haven’t done as much as I used to. Sometimes running a department that does some of the work doesn’t allow much time to appreciate the work of others. There just are not enough hours in the day. Here’s how I hope to build a better system.
As I’m looking through the video/multimedia projects I’ve recently posted on Tumblr, saved on Delicious and fav’d on Twitter, I’m noticing that I’m generally putting them in three main buckets: interactive narratives, learning and eye candy. So rather than fill up my Tumblr feeds to organize all of these, I simply created three new Tumblr blogs:
- Interactive Narratives: If I were to create a broadcast channel to distribute interactive, visual and journalistic storytelling, this blog would be its programming. (Think Newsstand for Video Content Publishers.)
- Dream Lectures: If ever I’m back in the classroom, I would fill some of my instructional time with guest “dream” lectures from the web. Inspiring TED talks is a great source.
- My Own MTV (Yes, the title is inspired from its early slogan of “I Want My MTV!”): Some will remember when MTV (Music Television) was a channel that actually played music videos. So, here’s a collection of music videos, short fiction films and/or some great eye candy.
Obviously, not everything is as cut and dry. Some of the projects I’ve curated in these channels overlap. In fact, I would argue that the perfect interactive narrative is both extremely informative, or educational, and entertaining (Area #4 in the chart above). And there will be some projects that may have all intentions to tell a story but essentially is a music video (Area #2). And, of course, most inspiring lectures are entertaining. Grabbing people’s attention is critical in any successful learning environment. And that’s often done through successful storytelling.
A recent conversation with a professor friend of mine said his school of communication is divided into three basic areas: journalism (newspaper, magazine, multimedia and broadcast), entertainment (television and film) and persuasion (advertising and PR).
As with this school’s program, entertainment in my chart focuses on fictional work. And fictional work is just that - storytelling that is grounded only in someone’s imagination, not reality. I will never mix fiction and nonfiction without absolute transparency, despite the Mike Daisey “act of theater” defense of adding a little fiction to make the facts more powerful.
I’ve taken the liberty to focus on education as opposed to persuasion. I’ve curated a number of projects that clearly fall into advertising. I’m on the fence about including advertising, but some pieces are just so visually inspiring that they have a place in these collections. I also considered labeling “entertainment” as “creative art” as well but felt that the intersection of interactive narratives and the connotation of creative and art could be confusing.
All this to basically explain that I’ve launched three other ways to organize my discoveries. I’d like to think that as bodies of work, there’s some insight in finding the connections among them. And when that happens, I’ll make some comments on this main Tumblr blog.
Being a juror for an industry competition has its share of challenges and rewards. My primary concerns were twofold: 1) the sheer number of entries and 2) their quality. Being an entrant (from The NYTimes), I get how difficult it is to pick and choose from the year’s body of work. But editing is a huge part of our job, and learning to let go is a must. I also can appreciate how difficult it is to edit down your entries based on the target audience as each photo competition has its unique categories.
And who knows which lens each juror will bring? As Dan Chung’s post (Multimedia Practioners Reactions to the 2012 World Press Photo Multimedia Awards) on DSLR News Shooter reveals, every producer/editor would bring their own diverse points of view to the judging process. Which is extremely important.
However, I do think we can afford to edit down the submissions by taking a hard look in-house at the best work. Maybe there’s something to be gained by that hard look, turning a pre-judging experience into a free self-training experience?
A thought: Maybe increasing the entry fee might help edit our submissions down. I wouldn’t want to discourage independent producers from entering, so perhaps a sliding-scale formula would make the big guys pay more than solo shops by factoring in the number of names credited on each piece.
The rewards, however, outweigh the challenges. First, I get to watch some projects that were new to me. Obviously, it’s important for us to observe and watch what others in our industry are producing. But finding the time to do so, between running a desk, producing work and living lives, is difficult. So it was a pleasure to get away for a few days and discover some great projects. Of course, the downside was having to sit through some mediocre ones as well. It’s a clear reminder on the importance of starting strong and layering narratives with tension and intrigue to keep readers and viewers engaged.
As a manager and editor, I also benefit from looking at the work of a number of promising and upcoming stars. I find it encouraging to see several producers (in the profession as well as those coming from academic settings) finding their own voice. The recording and editing tools are second nature to them as storytellers. They just need more opportunities in finding the right stories.
Overall, my experience was fantastic. Having judged a number of NPPA’s BOP competition in the past as well as World Press Photo last year, this year’s judging at POYi was appreciatively unique (they all are in their own way, of course) because of the progress of industry work, Director Rick Shaw’s rigor and smooth process and, most of all, the conversations I had with fellow judges who come from documentary filmmaking backgrounds. Being POYi, there were obviously discussions around visual storytelling. But the discussions weren’t focused around issues we’ve talked about years ago (ie., value of music, narration, etc.). It was predominantly around story, engagement and character.
Check out the full list of winners from POYi 69. Or watch them by category:
- Feature Multimedia Story
- News Multimedia Story
- Issue Reporting Multimedia Story
- Long-Form Multimedia Documentary
Did it suck?
It was timely that Mike Davis posted “Does Story Telling Lose In Multimedia?” at the time of the POYi competition. Someone had mentioned the post over a dinner break, and I was ready to disagree with him as I don’t find multimedia sucking. Having had a chance to read it after the judging was over, I was glad to see that I agree with Mike for the most part. He outlined the three-commandment formula:
- Though shalt approach subject matter that mostly happened in the past.
- Thou shalt point a video/audio producing machine at a person looking at said machine and ask them questions, as the primary story telling medium.
- Thou shalt make video of something in the present tense that may or may not have anything to do with that past event and then overlay that video cleverly with the interview audio to suggest a connection between the two, without being too misleading.
Most journalism stories are driven by writers and doctrine says the written story is better told by recreating past events. Transfer this doctrine to multimedia and voilà, the three commandment approach is almost the only one available in a journalistic setting.
… the greatest story telling potential of audio and video and still photography is reached in the present tense.
We are held captive by our own industry. It’s extremely important we find inspiration from outside the industry. It’s one of the many reasons why I found judging the competition with documentary filmmakers stimulating. The form of narratives we strive for is more akin to documentary films than our television news counterparts.
Unfortunately, the economies of scale are at odds. Many doc filmmakers will spend weeks or months with their stories to get pivotal moments as they unfold in present time. And those pivotal moments are often characterized by exchanges between characters or events that have to happen both in audio as well as video. The hours of footage will require several more months or even years to edit to a film.
For many in the news cycle, we simply don’t have the time to wait for the right moment to unfold as we’re rolling sound and video. Take a look at the awards given for both POYi and World Press Photo. “The Uprising” from Lightbox was the only piece awarded that covered the Arab Spring, even though it was one of the biggest stories from 2011. And even then, the video was a sight-and-sound piece with still photography and ambient audio. (To be fair, “Dawn of a Revolution” was recognized with a mention in POYi. But it was also produced in the similar sight-and-sound fashion.)
The other project awarded that was in response to news, and the other big story from 2011, was “Flirt” by Damir Sagolj, which reviewed the aftermath of the tsunami in Japan. Again, it was mainly still photography and laid over the ambient sound of waves. Narration by the photographer and his experience packaged it into a photographer’s journal.
These projects have a place in our industry. Obviously, they all come from the news category from POYi. They are artful but fail to tell the FULL story. We don’t actually see key moments unfolding nor do we meet any characters. And as this medium evolves ever so closer to being a documentary film, the need to complete the package with other materials such as user-submitted or archival footage will be greater. I’m reminded of a documentary titled “Trouble the Water” in which the filmmakers weaved 15 minutes of home movie footage shot the day before and the morning of Hurricane Katrina.
The Features and Issues categories generally represent stories that allowed photographers and filmmakers to spend some time with the stories and their characters. And it was in one of these categories where the judges became fully immersed in the discussion because we were really looking at the observational method of visual reporting as opposed of being directed.
It’s a good exercise. Go ahead: Watch several multimedia packages. Or even consider your own edit. How much was kept in the final edit that had true exchanges between characters or events? It’s easy to get those walks across the fields or the drive on the prairies because those visual sequences happen several times a day.
It’s not enough to say that using only the voice of the characters in your story makes your piece (cinéma) vérité. I feel that we’ve bent that definition a bit to help us make an argument for non-narrated pieces. But the better exercise is to count the moments of candid realism.
The economy of scale issue, again, is at odds.
An excellent case study would be to compare the film “Restrepo” by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington to “Hell and Back Again” by Danfung Dennis. Both great docs but told in their own way based on the material they ultimately captured. I’m sure many PJs have had discussions over drinks on this very topic. Another war doc, Armadillo, is also worth watching.
At the end, it was great to know that our discussions often relied on truth, transparency and honesty between the filmmaker and audience.
During the thoughtful discussions of visual storytelling, vérité and engagement, I can’t help but think about the process of our judging work in isolation. I have two concerns:
- Are we reviewing and recognizing the most impactful work out there?
- Are we in the ideal setting for consuming this type of content?
I started this post referencing the overwhelming number of entries we had to review and weed out. And although I am certain we recognized some truly strong work and awarded the best based on the dynamic and lens of the jury, I wonder if some were left behind or weren’t even entered in the first place.
Other web competitions have Viewers’ Choice or People’s Voice divisions. But even then, the number of projects have already been edited down to nominees. And leaving it up to John Q. Public may only bring us LOLCats and Kony2012. I opened up InteractiveNarratives.org to a wider pool of contributors in 2008, but it hasn’t reached the numbers I had hoped. This is one of the reasons why I relaunched IN’s original form as a Tumblr blog.
Only a couple of years old, tablets and e-readers have launched a resurgence of long-form storytelling in text. Think Atavist and Kindle Singles. And for as much as we encourage people to start with compelling tape to lure viewers in, I wonder whether there will come a day when we can be as patient in our small-screen storytelling as the filmmakers are on their big screens.
As this work continues to evolve ever more akin to documentary films, the computer is simply NOT the ideal medium for this type of long-form visual journalism. Every moment you’re on a computer (and smartphone as well), you’re fighting the urge to check your email or your Twitter or Facebook feed.
As an industry, we need to get our multimedia stories distributed on other channels. Hulu and Netflix would be a good start. An Interactive Narratives channel on HBO Go would be pretty sweet. And if Apple ever launches an iTV with an equivalent of Newsstand for video content publishers, it could potentially change everything.
Now here’s a thought to get our work into the mainstream: Why not bring back the Newsreel of yore to the modern age? If the film festivals play short docs before feature films, why don’t we show our multimedia features along with the movie trailers?
At least we’d be giving people a reason to talk while in the theater.
But since that time, significant strides have been made in video distribution: Hulu, Netflix’s Watch Instantly, iTunes Store’s TV Shows & Movies. Then iOS launches. I often wear bluetooth earbuds (Jaybird Freedom) when consuming most audio and/or video content on my iPhone and iPad. I build playlists on Vimeo & YouTube (Watch Later) via my social network (Fav on Twitter mostly). And then watch them with Denso at appropriate times (ie: lean back, while doing chores, at the gym). And, of course, there’s an array of video publisher content. TED is one of my favorites. The new Smithsonian Channel app is impressive too (see image below). All this to say that we are not short in excellent video content to be consumed on a computer, tablets and smart phones. We lack a way to organize it all.
Hence, my wishlist for a Newsstand for Video Content Publishers and Platforms (Vimeo & YouTube). But beyond a place to purchase/rent video content, but a one-stop shop for discovery, curation, consumption and share. And what if we can create and organize our own personal channel based on our own discovery (ie: Interactive Narratives Channel). Denso just launched this channel on their platform to allow for easier consumption. Maybe that could be a part of iTV from Apple.
Accompany this with a recent interactive story we produced at The New York Times (more on this later), and I’m inspired to write this overdue post on my contributions to the conversation at AIGA-Pivot. It’s an opportunity to share some of my thoughts on what excites me today about interactive storytelling and the projects we are producing on the multimedia desk.
This past summer, Julie Beeler from Portland’s Second Story interactive studio graciously invited me to be on the Storytelling is Design and Design is Storytelling affinity session in Phoenix. I was honored to be a part of an impressive lineup, and it was apropos to be invited by Julie, as it was the work of her and partner Brad Johnson that inspired me to tell, explain and innovate in the space of Interactive Narratives.
Before we go down this interactive path, let me start with the importance of linear storytelling. An excellent story is often compelling because of its layers. Each layer reveals a new concept or an arc that compels the reader or viewer to continue their narrative journey. A cross-section of a sequoia tree, for example, is a visual way to show the layered life-cycle of a tree … in a linear fashion.
I can appreciate a well-told, impeccably paced linear story with complex layers. Books, movies and documentary films have been doing amazing and beautiful storytelling for decades, if not centuries. A number of sites and organizations, including i-Docs and DocLab, have helped in collecting some of the new work in the interactive documentary space.
And there are well-executed and well-told linear stories today in the multimedia space. I’m extremely proud of the recent work we’ve done at The Times, including the beautifully shot and edited Vanishing Minds, Lives Restored & A Year at War series.
Even before joining The Times in 2006, I launched Interactive Narratives to capture the best of online visual storytelling as practiced by journalists and storytellers from around the world. I included “narrative” in the site’s title because I wanted the site to reflect the sentiment and thought of storytelling but not necessarily confine the collection to journalism. The term “interactive” helps define the viewer’s experience. But over the years, I’ve grown to appreciate that the interaction is not just about the users’ experiences but it’s equally about the interplay of story elements to enhance the package in non-linear layers.
I’m also inspired by how video games push the interactive narrative form. Beyond Pong, video games use storytelling to keep players engaged, peeling new layers in the arc as one “levels up” in the game.
Today, players are more accustomed to exploring a world outside the structured narrative. Take Super Mario Bros. A player could essentially zoom through the structured narrative on ground level. But what makes the game more compelling is the ability to take Mario through tunnels, underground caverns or even in the clouds to explore tangent story lines.
In the Grand Theft Auto series, the narrative structure widens even more as players have the ability to roam through the entire city landscape.
Pivot to Interactive Narratives in the journalism and documentary space. Are there opportunities to engage readers/viewers with multi-layered, non-linear stories? During my presentation, I quote an Indian saying about education that goes:
This diagram evolved from an earlier one from 2009.
This diagram changes based on the elements of the story and forms available. The length of the narrative or the size of the circles may change. The circles of “sidebars,” if you will, are tangent to the main narrative and have obvious in-and-out points to the main storyline. The fine line between discovery and confusion can be resolved by thoughtful visual design.
Here are a few examples of how The Times’ multimedia desk applied this type of story form to a number of stories and interactives; the media that carried the main narrative is noted in parentheses:
- A Boy Learns to Brawl (text)
- Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World (text)
- Better Lives for Mexicans Cut Allure of Going North (text)
- Loss and Healing in Norway (audio)
- Haiti: The Shattered Year (audio)
- The Debt Trap
These sidebars are less about the story form and presentation/design and more about the experience and narrative flow. Imagine a written story or a video script written specifically to engage the reader/viewer in an interactive sidebar, or a sidebar that encourages a user to take a quiz, engage with an interactive graphic or offer their thoughts on Twitter or Facebook … or giving a reader/viewer a chance to go to a physical space and experience the story through an augmented reality presentation.
Now things can get interesting.