Al Jazeera’s approach to longform storytelling
We attended MozFest this year and gave a session about Al Jazeera’s approach to webdoc and long-form storytelling. This article only includes the part where I talked about long-form storytelling techniques.
Nepal’s bloody civil war ended in 2006 when a Comprehensive Peace Accord was signed between the Maoist rebels and the Nepali state in Kathmandu. Many people have disappeared or got killed during the war. Al Jazeera tells this story through the eyes of the Nepali people.
The story is broken into 3 chapters:
Chapter I: Those who fought along with the Maoists and those who opposed them. What do the changes of the past 20 years mean to them?
Chapter II: The human cost of the war. More than 16,000 people died, thousands were injured and nearly 1,500 people remain missing until today.
Chapter III: The top leaders of the Maoist party and their opinions about the past 20 years. Did they compromise, and if so, why did they do it?
10,000-word story, 20GB of multimedia content (images and video).
What we had to keep in mind
- It’s a very long story.
- It’s not a widely-known topic.
- The story is dense and may require multiple rereads.
- The success of the page needs to be measured the moment that we publish.
Make a very long story readable, consumable and enjoyable for the widest range of people.
Al Jazeera Approach
Before we start working on any story, we put the reader in the main picture, then the story’s characters around them, so way we can see the big picture, and start from there.
Thinking about it
We took the following approach to distribute the story to the widest audience.
The long-form version
We had to decide “should we go with an adaptive or responsive layout?” The adaptive layout would allow us to filter out content for mobile. A responsive layout would be easier since all it does is resize the content based on the screen size.
We decided to go with a responsive approach because we didn’t expect any major differences between mobile and desktop.
Since the story was very long, we had to ensure that there was some bookmarking feature on the page to allow readers to pick up right from where they left off. We built a simple page scroll depth plugin which uses local storage. http://aljazeera.com/nepal-maoist-dream
Smart speed reader
A technique that we’ve been wanting to test out on long-form stories is the speed reader. This technique has become quite popular especially for memorability of text.
In order for this technique to work however, it had to have some additional features:
1. The default stop, play, control speed functionality (forked from Charlotte Dann Spritz Speed Reading V2).
2. We added the ability to include images between paragraphs or wherever its needed.
3. The ability to choose not to chunk some paragraph into words, a perfect case would be the title of the chapter, and we considered the amount of time we need to pause on each element.
Subsequently, we launched SPDRD available here: https://github.com/alaabatayneh/spdrd.git
We used iBooks Author to create the ePub, its a free software that is extremely easy to use to create ebooks for mobile devices or PDF files.
It took us around 4 days to record the audiobook, it wasn’t as easy as we anticipated because it was more like a narration that just reading, we re-recorded many parts after listening to them.
We used Google Analytics to track the metrics we usually track, we also used event tracking on the buttons that offer other story formats (PDF, MP3, etc), we also look at the number of plays the SoundCloud file got. In the long-form format we track the scroll depth against the average time spent on the page.