For years, newspapers – the old guard of the journalism world – have viewed digital platforms solely as a means to replicate print, which surely explains, at least in part, the current state of the industry.
However, digital, when viewed as something other than a means to create a carbon copy, clearly has vast potential that we’re still only just beginning to discover, and the old belief that netizens have the attention span of a hyperactive gnat is clearly outdated when we take a look at some of the amazing longform pieces that are being created purely for digital. “I think that there is an accepted consensus that stories have to be told in an innovative way to get attention in the web based era,” says James Hill, a Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist and contributor to the New York Times.
While there are of course digital editions of print newspapers, there are few reasons why their digital counterparts can’t do something that offers a genuinely different experience for the reader, engaging them differently and making the most of the capabilities that these new platforms offer. Where journalists are embracing the potential that digital affords, the results are often breathtaking.
“When published, the team was amazed to find that it was attracting an average attention time of between 15 and 18 minutes”
Emily Chow, Graphics Editor at The Washington Post, has seen the efficacy of this first hand. An article which she and her team worked on concerning the Mark Thompson trial was presented in chapter form, incorporated an array of audio clips, interesting graphics as well as having – at its very core – a thoroughly compelling narrative. Graphic components were utilized to help pace the piece and chapter headings provided markers to guide chunk out the story as they would in a novel. When published, the team was amazed to find that it was attracting an average attention time of between 15 and 18 minutes. That’s extraordinary, but of course, so was the article.
The thing with the utilizing multimedia is that it must be done judiciously. Not every story needs a graphic accompaniment. Some may be suited much more to static graphics, others to a more interactive form. Says Emily, “sometimes it’s just about taking a really large data set and making it comprehensible and personable. On the other hand, there are also moments where there is an opportunity to create emotion through animation”. You can see examples of this below: notably in ‘The Russia Left Behind’ piece, where the imagery, the geography and narrative all complement each other, albeit rather painfully.
That said, using multimedia can increase accessibility. Scrolling through an article like ‘A World Apart’, it’s possible to get a sense of the story without getting into the data sets. Similarly, it’s entirely possible to lose yourself in those patterns, numbers and comparisons. “It’s almost like there are different levels of engagement to cater to and understand,” explains Chow, and she’s absolutely right. When readers are given an interesting subject, a compelling narrative and the opportunity to delve deeper should the urge take, it’s not so surprising to see average attention times like those mentioned above, but even if those readers aren’t spending 15 minutes on a piece, there’s every chance they’re engaged for a more typical yet still wholly respectable seven or eight.
What binds all of these ideas together is, of course, a strong commitment to storytelling. Here are five longform stories told extremely well using the latest in online tech.
New York Times: ‘Riding the New Silk Road‘
James Hill’s photographs and videos taken along the train line of the New Silk Road are further contextualized by the interactive map they’re set into. Photojournalism is, in many ways, a different beast to its written counterpart, but of course it shares the same core values as any other piece of journalism. It exists to open peoples’ eyes to another place, community or event. “The idea with this story,” says James, “was to give a sense of the journey and the desolate nature of the far-flung corners through which this train was passing en-route to Europe.”
New York Times: ‘The Russia Left Behind‘
Any story employing a linear narrative seems to work well with the kind of graphic enhancement that maps afford, and with Ellen Barry’s piece about forgotten corners of Russia, it’s clear that the use of an interactive map – much like James Hill’s above – doesn’t so much adorn the page, but contextualise the story the author is telling.
Washington Post: ‘A World Apart‘
Emily Chow, Graphics Editor at The Washington Post, is quick to quash the idea that graphics are anything new: they have been utilized for as long as anyone can remember, but the salient point is that while the digital graphics and design departments may not be a new inclusion in the organization, the innovations they espouse are anything but entrenched.
Chow, together with Ted Mellnik, Carol Morello and Wilson Andrews, created a piece of journalism that clearly draws on the best of design and multimedia, as well as good copy and thoughtful storytelling – all the ingredients really to produce a piece that people truly engage with.
An interactive map allows you to zoom in and discover in-depth facts about each region, and a search bar allows you to search for your own zip code. It’s this degree of personalisation that Chow believes has contributed to the piece’s success.
Washington Post: ‘Perils at Great Falls‘
Shortly after this piece was published, a comment posted to a thread on Muck Rack articulated what many others had said: “Already am entranced by this piece and haven’t even read it… ”
There you have it. The adage of a picture telling a thousand words should give us all pause for thought here: given the subject matter, no words – either in terms of volume or vocabulary – could come close to conveying the message that this article does in all its multimedia glory.
El Duque: ‘La Gran Fuga‘
Victory Journal is a publishing house worth mentioning in any context, but we’ve included it here for good reason: it might not utilize the same scope of multimedia options as some of our other selections, but as a thoughtfully crafted, longform piece that uses graphics not to break up paragraphs of text but to switch narrative forms and visual prompts, it’s a superlative piece of work. What results is a beautiful article that’s really enticing, and a narrative that’s thoroughly engaging.