Stop letting the ~cool~ factor detract from your journalism

This post is an extension of a five-minute lightning talk I gave at the 2015 NICAR conference in Atlanta, exploring how we can tell our stories online in experimental ways without innovation overkill.

I’m a news apps developer on the data team at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I spend my days designing + developing interactive graphics, analyzing data, educating and working with reporters + producers on data projects, and writing a whole lot of code. I’m 23 years old, and up until we hired a 22-year-old three months ago, I was the youngest person in the newsroom by about 5 years.

In layman’s terms, I build cool things on the Internet, but for journalism!

But wait, you may be asking yourself, if you build cool things on the Internet for a living, and as a millennial, you’re likely the targeted audience for the cool things you build, then why is this post about stopping the cool things?

Let’s flash back to eight months ago.

In July of 2014, Atlanta celebrated the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Atlanta. Amongst all the other historical features coverage publishing over the summer here at the AJC, our news apps team wanted to take the opportunity to experiment with long-form, immersive, data-driven storytelling and saw the Battle of Atlanta as the perfect platform to do so. We had hundreds of historical images, access to tons of historical data and a partnership with the Atlanta History Center to assist with research.

Before the project was even put on the budget, and knowing it would be extremely visual, I started experimenting with page layout and a few scrolling libraries. I’d thrown up a couple of interesting images of Atlanta after Sherman burned everything, added in some Bluth Ipsum with fade in animations for fun and started implementing some parallax scroll effects on the page.

One day, a couple of reporters passed behind my desk when I was working and peered over my shoulder to check it out, “oohing” and “aaahing” over the fancy scroll effects and text transformations appearing before them.

“Wow! That looks so cool! I can’t wait to see that published! When is it going up?” They gaped from behind as I continued to make Lucille Bluth quotes fade in and out over and under historical images as they scrolled off screen.

Yeah, it looked pretty snazzy, I guess. But the content was total nonsense and the reporters — two of our best watchdog reporters—didn’t even notice the content wasn’t publishable because they were distracted by its “coolness”.

And while it’s great that fancy parallax scrolling and interactive elements can draw in our users and keep them engaged with what we build, it’s largely surface level if we aren’t using it to enhance our stories.

I like to call this the “Snowfall Effect.”

The journalism community has been publishing a lot of experimental projects in recent years, and it’s easy to get really excited about all the ~cool~ things we’re seeing. Us news developers, designers and data specialists love that our jobs involve taking the incredible stories our reporters gather and finding new and exciting ways to tell those stories online.

But often we get too distracted by the “new” and the “exciting.”

I can bet most news developers have had a member of the newsroom ask them to “Snowfall” their story, no matter what the story is about. A colleague sees an incredibly innovative and beautifully designed immersive interactive project, and they want that for their story, but their story wouldn’t work in that kind of format and has no real visual angle. Or if their story would work in that format, there just isn’t enough time or bandwidth to make it work well. Everybody wants that ~cool~ factor.

<pause> but can we seriously talk about how great it is reporters are thinking about digital presentation in the first place? </pause>

We see the parallax scrolling and the big hero images, the large typography and animated infographics. We see interesting chart transitions, data animations and maps on maps on maps. As journalists still trying to determine what it looks like to be successful in an age where nearly half of web traffic comes from the phone, listicles are surpassing long-form and audience engagement is everything, it’s been drilled into our brains that we must hunt for ways to adapt and survive. I think often we look a little too far, and we’re letting our attempts to rethink how we tell stories online detract from our journalism.

Our job isn’t to make incredible things on the web. Our job is to tell incredible stories on the web.

Luckily for us, these two can coincide with one another and produce incredible digital storytelling, but often they fight. When we see shiny things on the internet we turn into cats and go nuts. Sometimes we can’t help it. What we have to do is channel our attraction to these shiny things into fabulous storytelling.

Let’s talk about how we do this:

  • Every story doesn’t need a cool interactive. Don’t force visuals solely for the sake of visuals. Just because a story has locations doesn’t mean it needs a map (with markers and popups and a toggle and you get the picture). Just because a story has numbers doesn’t mean it needs a chart. Not every story is meant to be told in a cool way. Some stories are best told in their original, beautifully written text form.
  • Reporters: Talk to your data and visuals people as soon as you start thinking about a story that you might want to be told in a cool way. They may have ideas you won’t think of (*ahem*, they will have ideas you won’t think of, it’s their job to think differently than you), and can help you figure out the best way to tell your story. They want your story to be cool! They love making stories cool! It’s their job! Once you open that line of communication from the beginning, keep it open throughout the whole process. Don’t chunk your story over the fence to the data/viz folks when you’re done with it and expect them to make it fabulous if they haven’t been working alongside you the whole way.
  • Data and visuals people: Talk to reporters about what stories they’re working on. Tell them what you’re interested in. Data folks, tell your reporters about cool data sets you find. Keeping communication lines open is absolutely essential. When you start working with a reporter on a story, don’t disappear into your dark coding corner until it’s time to publish. Talk to the reporter about ways you can better tell their story visually. Use each others’ brains to make the final product awesome!
  • When you see great storytelling out in the wild that you can’t get enough of, look deeper at *why* you love it. Is it the great visuals? Is it how they enhance the story? Is it all the additional packaged content? How long did you look at the story? Did you spend more time focusing on the interactive elements and visuals, or the story as a whole? These questions can help us think more about how we use visuals, data and interactive elements to enhance our stories, and where they do and do not work.
My miniature schnauzer, Sophie, is the greatest judge of all my work. Especially my sloppy late-night code.
  • Show it to everyone. Your mom, your desk neighbor, your dog. Find out if they get the same features of the story out of it that you do. Put fresh eyes all over that sucker before you send it out into the wild. Ask them all the same questions you ask yourself when looking at interactive projects you like.

But don’t say no to all ~cool~ things!

Just because something is complicated or sounds ambitious doesn’t mean you should not do it. The web provides endless opportunity for innovative, engaging and well-thought-out storytelling. The number of tools available to us is unfathomable. We just have to remind ourselves to be journalists first and foremost, not web ninjas/magicians/sorcerers/unicorns on missions to build fancy internetz.

There are a number of news organizations out there doing a great job producing quality journalism in novel ways. For some inspiration, here’s just a few projects where the ~cool~ factor is blessing and not a curse:

Want to talk more about this? Let’s get in touch! @ashlynstill

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