taxonomy of digital story packages
In this form of storytelling, there is a main story, usually text, told in a linear fashion, and with multimedia elements integrated into the main story so they're viewed at appropriate points in the narrative.
The multimedia usually is embedded in the story rather than being pushed to the side. Thus the multimedia is designed to be viewed while the story is being read, not afterward.
The result is a more seamless transition between text and video or graphics and back to text, with the multimedia a part of the narrative, rather than separated out.
Here are some examples of embedded multimedia stories, all drawn from the New York Times, that show the evolution of this form:
The Times published two stories on a Mexico bribery case involving the Wal-Mart company in which multimedia was integrated into the main story.
In the first story published in April 2012, links to documents are embedded in the main text story.
In the second part published in December 2012, the main story again is text but with many more multimedia elements - photos, an interactive map, text documents - added in a column to the right.
And unlike the Christmas tree approach in which the multimedia is just stacked in a column, as you scroll through this story each of the multimedia elements appears on the right at the relevant point in the main narrative.
A preview video also is included at the top of this story.
A slightly different approach was taken in the story package Better Lives for Mexicans Cut Allure of Going North, published in July 2011.
The multimedia was displayed in a stack to the left of the story and at the top.
But as you scroll down through the story different multimedia elements open up, so you can view them at relevant points in the story.
In Virtual Play, Sex Harassment Is All Too Real, published in August 2012, links to multimedia such as videos or graphics are embedded in the main text story.
Punched Out, a story package published in December 2011 about a hockey player "enforcer" who suffered brain damage and drug addiction and died, relied not on text for the main narrative but instead on a series of videos.
Other multimedia elements, such as a slideshow, graphics or shorter videos, are highlighted as the main video plays.
If you click on these other multimedia elements, the main video will pause so you can view the secondary multimedia and then resume play of the main video.
Finally there's Climbing Kilimanjaro, an interactive graphic the Times produced in October 2007.
The graphic is a fly-over views of the Tanzanian mountain on which multimedia elements like videos or photos with audio are keyed to different points on the climb up to the peak.
All of these different approaches to multimedia culminated in Snow Fall, a story the New York Times published in December 2012 about an avalanche in the state of Washington that killed a group of skiers. In this story the multimedia was thoroughly integrated into a long text narrative.
The story was widely praised for how it carefully blended the multimedia into the text narrative. The multimedia was designed to be viewed while reading the main story, rather than afterward (which is the Christmas Tree approach).
Thus animations and other graphics would slowly appear at relevant points in the text story as you scrolled through it. In some cases the background color of the text story would gradually change to match the color of a graphic that would load as you scrolled down through the narrative.
The goal was to "find ways to allow readers to read into, and then through multimedia, and then out of multimedia. So it didn’t feel like you were taking a detour, but the multimedia was part of the one narrative flow,” New York Times Graphics Director Steve Duenes explained in an interview with Poynter Online.
Snow Fall won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Peabody Award.
There were a number of inspirations for Snow Fall:
- an ESPN story on former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Doc Ellis, which used the curtain.js jquery library to embed graphics in a text story (one of our students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism also picked up on the curtain.js jquery library and used it to integrate photos and graphics into a long text story on homelessness in Richmond, California). The Doc Ellis story also used parallax scrolling, in which the foreground scrolls by more quickly than the background, creating a sense of three dimensional depth (the technique has been used previously in animations and video games).
- a text and photo essay called Glitter in the Dark published at the Pitchfork music site
- a wedding announcement by a couple of designers/graphic artists in New York
After the publication of Snow Fall, the New York Times announced it was implementing a new design for articles that has some of the embedded multimedia approach of Snow Fall.
Aaron Pilhofer, editor of interactive news at the New York Times, also did a mockup of what the story would have looked like if it had been published using the Times' traditional story template (which is the Christmas Tree approach).
Sources and Resources for Snow Fall:
- What the New York Times's 'Snow Fall' Means to Online Journalism's Future - Rebecca Greenfield, Atlantic Wire, 12/20/2012
- How The New York Times’ ‘Snow Fall’ project unifies text, multimedia - Jeff Sonderman, Poynter, 12/20/2012
- 'Snow Fall' Isn't the Future of Journalism - Derek Thompson, The Atlantic, 12/21/2012
- ‘Snow Fall’ Tells a Story About an Avalanche and a Newspaper’s Digital Progress - Public Editor's Journal, New York Times, 12/27/2012
- How We Made Snow Fall: A Q&A with the New York Times team - Source, 1/1/2013
- Inside “Snow Fall,” the New York Times multimedia storytelling sensation - Nieman Storyboard, 3/29/2013
- Why Design Matters: If Snow Fall Were Published in a Standard Template - Aron Pilhofer, aronpilhofer.com, 5/10/2013
- Sorry, ‘Snow Fall’ isn’t going to save the New York Times - Pandodaily 5/13/2013
- Newsweek.com Redesign Aims to Be 'Snow Fall' on a Weekly Basis - Ad Age, 5/15/2013
- The New York Times Told Me to Take This Down - Cody Brown, 5/21/2013. Cody Brown put up a YouTube video demonstrating how he used a tool called scroll kit to build a replica of the Snow Fall multimedia package in about an hour, prompting copyright and other objections from the New York Times.
- Everyone Secretly Hates "Snow Fall" - Choire Sicha, The Awl, 5/22/2013
- A Whole Lot of Bells, Way Too Many Whistles: Multimedia-laden features like “Snow Fall” and “The Jockey” are bad for the Web and bad for readers - Farhad Manjoo, Slate, 5/15/2013
- Snowfallen: Just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should - Bobbie Johnson, Medium, 7/13/2013
- Snow Fail: Do Readers Really Prefer Parallax Web Design? - Eric Jaffe, Fast Company, 12/19/2013
More Embedded Multimedia Stories: The Snow Fall Effect Takes Off
After the publication of Snow Fall, other media organizations produced a number of multimedia stories that built on the Times project. incorporating some of the same devices and adding new techniques. They included:
Cycling's Road Forward - Washington Post
Cycling's Road Forward is a five-part Washington Post story published on February 27, 2013, about a cycling phenom working to overcome the shadow cast on the sport by discredited cyclist Lance Armstrong.
The story is presented in a format similar to the New York Times' Snow Fall project with multimedia elements embedded in a long text piece, although the interactivity is not nearly as sophisticated and the transitions between text and multimedia not as elegant as in the New York Times piece. Poynter did an interview with Post information designer Wilson Andrews about the project.
Six : 01 - Memphis Commercial Appeal
Six : 01, produced by the Memphis Commercial Appeal, is the story of the 32 hours leading up to the assasination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee in April 1968. The story is told on a single page as a long vertical scroll of text, which gives a sense of movement through the story as you scroll down. Photos and videos are integrated as elements that appear in the flow of the text.
The story also has an element of the timeline approach to storytelling, with a countdown of the hours/minutes leading up to the assasination displayed in a column on the left as you scroll down through the story.
The story was published on April 4, 2013, the 45th anniversary of the killing of Martin Luther King Jr.
Sources and Resources for Six : 01
- Design isn’t just for the big guys: In Memphis, the Commercial Appeal retells MLK’s last 32 hours - Nieman Journalism Lab, 4/9/2013
Firestorm is a story by The Guardian about a huge brush fire that hit the Tasmanian Peninsula in Australia and how one family survived by fleeing their home to a lake where they cowered under a jetty.
The story, published on May 22, 2013, is told primarily with text, but as you scroll down through the text, photos, videos and a map fade in and out in the background. Periodically the text will give way to a video or audio clip, usually an interview. The story also is broken into six chapters.
Bounced Around - Chronicle of Higher Education
Bounced Around, published by the Chronicle of Higher Education on June 3, 2013, is the story of a college basketball coach who has had 12 coaching jobs in 16 years. The story is mainly text that you scroll down through to reveal photo slideshows and animated graphics.
Bulger on Trial - WBUR
Bulger on Trial, produced by WBUR, the NPR station n Boston, is the story of James "Whitey" Bulger, the mobster charged with 19 murders who was on the lam for more than 15 years before being captured in 2011. The story, published on June 5, 2013, uses the familiar scrolling text into which are integrated photos, audio clips and videos. The project also includes links to a timeline, a map of the murders, documents from the trial and other stories, thus incoporating some of the non-linear approach to multimedia storytelling.
- WBUR partners with Atavist to tell the story of Whitey Bulger and templatize feature presentation - Justin Ellis, Nieman Journalism Lab, 6/5/2013
Jockey was an eight-part New York Times story published on August 14, 2013, about the life of a California jockey, which employed some of the same techniques used in Snow Fall to embed multimedia in a text story. Many of the story segments had longer video pieces that appeared seamlessly as you scrolled through the story.
Sources and Resources for Jockey:
- New York Times Weaves Custom Ads Into 'Snow Fall'-Like 'The Jockey' - Ad Age, 8/13/2013
NSA Files: Decoded - The Guardian
NSA Files: Decoded is a six-part online news story published by The Guardian on November 1, 2013, on the NSA files leaked by NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The narrative combines text with more than 30 short video interviews that autoplay as you scroll through the story. There also are a number of interactive or animated graphics, data visualizations and original source material documents embedded in the narrative.
"This piece was designed to be read, or consumed, as a whole. You can’t take the writing out of it and have it work the same. You can’t take the videos out of it and have it work. You can’t take out the graphics and have it work. It’s meant to be consumed as an entire project, with all these different parts being seen, seamlessly, to one another."
- Gabriel Dance, interactive editor at The Guardian. Source: Nieman Journalism Lab
The NSA Files project also provides more opportunities for readers to intereact with the story, such as by manipulating some of the graphics.
Sources and Resources for NSA Files: Decoded:
- The Guardian’s “NSA Files Decoded” and Multimedia Journalism - Khoi Vinh, Subtraction, 11/1/2013
- Q&A: The Guardian’s Gabriel Dance on new tools for story and cultivating interactive journalism - Nieman Journalism Lab, 11/25/2013
- The Guardian’s NSA Files Decoded: Did You Really Read It? - Threespot Media blog, 12/4/2013
A Game of Shark and Minnow is a multimedia story published by the New York Times Magazine on October 17, 2013, about a garrison of eight Fillipino troops on a World War II era ship run aground on a reef. They are stationed there in a face-off against China as part of a geopolitical struggle over the region. The presentation featured full-screen videos and maps embedded in the eight part text story.
More Examples of Stories Using the Embedded Multimedia Format
- His Saving Grace - Chicago Tribune, 2/14/2013
- Out in the Great Alone - Grantland, ESPN, 5/9/2013
- Machines for Life - Pitchfork, 5/14/2013
- Greenland Melting - Rolling Stone, 7/25/2013
- The perils at Great Falls - Washington Post, 8/10/2013
- One Dream - Time, 8/15/2013
- Gorgeous Glimpses of Calamity: Man-made perils to the universe’s garden of life are evident from space - New York Times, 8/16/2013. An opinion section story.
- The Road: Albemarle County’s three-decade fight over the Western Bypass isn’t over yet - c-ville, 8/28/2013
- The Geeks on the Front Lines - Rolling Stone, 9/10/2013
- Sea Change: The Pacific's Perilous Turn - Seattle Times, 9/11/2013
- China's Maritime Disputes - Council on Foreign Relations, 9/15/2013
- How Detroit went broke: The answers may surprise you - and don't blame Coleman Young - Detroit Free Press, 9/15/2013. In this story a lot of data visualizations and graphics are embedded in the story, along with some videos and photos.
- Concrete Risks - Los Angeles Times, 10/13/2013
- Ring of Fire: Why Our Military's Toxic Burn Pits are Making Soldiers Sick - The Verge, 10/28/2013