Storytelling Now

A personal selection of outstanding stories
from the 2015 Society of News Design competition.

Journalism awards come out of long hours invested by judges, in rooms where too much junk food is consumed, as lists of links or stacks of entries are eyed, pondered, discussed. I did that last weekend. The experience is great and terrible. Mostly great, because I love digital storytelling that takes full advantage of all that digital can be. It’s only terrible when you are exhausted and still have 50 entries to look at before you can go to dinner and you’ve been doing this since 8:30 a.m. and you just can’t drink any more coffee.

The Society of News Design has these categories for its digital competition. My group of three judged “Features: Coverage,” “Special events,” and the 200-entry category “Features: Single-subject project.” We saw lots of information and graphics about the 2014 World Cup, the Olympic Winter Games, the World War I Centenary, the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the anniversary of the 2004 Southeast Asia tsunami.

We saw moving stories about strength in the face of adversity, innovative reporting that went above and beyond, innovative engagement that built a bridge between platforms, stories that made us cry, and year-end packages that gave us new respect for year-end packages.

The not-so-good

I’m going to say a bit more about what bowled me over, below. First I’d like to say something about the types of entries we rejected, often quickly.

Graphics-heavy tributes to movies, TV series, comic-book superheroes (and professional sports teams): These were pretty. They showed evidence of a lot of work and care. But — yo, dude. Our evaluation criteria included news value: “Does the presentation’s content pass the traditional test of newsworthiness?” You don’t need to be spending your scarce resources on fan tributes that 100 million avid amateurs and any number of grossly wealthy Hollywood studios (or team leagues) are already producing, in one form or another.

Attractive article design that functions as a container for a really long text: Usually these were punctuated with very good full-width photos and/or videos. Sometimes they also had excellent data graphics. They did not go overboard on the parallax effects (thank goodness), although many articles used a bit of that, with restraint. The journalism in these entries often wowed us — but the design (this is a design competition) was just what I said: a container. Even when it was a very pretty container, it didn’t supplement or elevate the journalism. It was just a plate holding the food.

Covers: We saw several of these in the category “Features: Coverage.” Someone designed a very attractive cover page that linked out to all the coverage of a particular topic. When we clicked, though, we just went to articles in the site’s normal article template. Not worthy of an award for design. It’s annoying from a user’s point of view, because there’s no integration between the cover page and the linked pages. And — big hint —that’s not good design.

Magazine-style page layouts: Print is for print. Screen is for screen.

Video: Organizations that entered a package that was mostly stand-alone videos in a player — you were in the wrong competition. Next year, go to NPPA. Or if your video design can hold a candle to this or this, try the SND Digital category “Use of multimedia.”

Single information graphics: There was another category for these. It wasn’t one that I judged. (In fact, there were two categories, one for breaking news infographics and one for “planned coverage.”) It seems some people who enter things don’t look at the categories very closely. Or maybe they double-entered (which was permitted). If they didn’t double-enter those nice information graphics, I’m sorry they didn’t win anything. Next year, I hope they will pick the appropriate category.

The wonderful

Now the good stuff. The coolest part of the judging experience, for me, was after all the judges in my group had finished voting (yes or no) on all entries in a category, the three of us came together at a table where we discussed every entry that had three yes votes. Students and competition organizers joined us at the table, but only the three category judges were permitted to speak about an entry. In this way we determined the medal winners, Gold or Silver.

We did this three times, twice on Friday and once (for the mega category) on Sunday morning. My fellow judges, Sarah Slobin and Jonathon Berlin, and I took our tasks very seriously and debated our favorites vigorously. Sometimes only one person argued for a medal. Sometimes that one won over the other two. Sometimes one question from competition director Jeremy Gilbert made all three of us consider a new angle. Sometimes one carefully worded comment from one judge made the other two back down. All the discussion showed respect for both the work and the spirit of the competition: Does this push the boundaries? Does it lead the way?

Demolished (NPR) http://apps.npr.org/lookatthis/posts/publichousing/
Demolished (NPR) http://apps.npr.org/lookatthis/posts/publichousing/

Demolished: We had declined to award a medal to several “three yes” stories by the time this came in front of us in the final discussion, and I think that contributed to our decision about this one. In so many cases, we had agreed that the journalism was great, the design of the story was satisfying and effective, but it simply didn’t rise above the rest. In a sudden burst of realization that seemed to smack all of us simultaneously as we discussed this story, we said: Yes. Yes. Yes. This. It rises. Particularly for its restraint, its utter lack of anything unnecessary.

Chasing Bayla (The Boston Globe) http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2014/10/25/chasing-bayla/tJuazyjBOsdKQTRVnAbh7K/story.html

Chasing Bayla: We had not seen this technique before, or at least not used so successfully: a tightly coupled pairing of an all-text version and an all-visual version of one story. I especially liked the way I could skip between the two versions and never lose my place in the version I was focusing on (in the screen-grab above, note the grayed paragraph on the left side). In the visual version, the audio, integration of information graphics, illustrations, and carefully crafted bits of text all worked together to captivate me. I didn’t want to read every word (after all, I had 200 entries to look at in one day!) — but I did. I could not stop myself.

Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants (Los Angeles Times) http://ballots.latimes.com/lists/101-best-restaurants-jonathan-gold/

Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants: We saw a fair number of food-related features — collections of recipes, collections of restaurants. This one rose far above the pack for several reasons:

  1. Personalization — Users can create a “brag list” of the restaurants they have eaten at already. They can also create a “want to go” list.
  2. Integration — In most of the food features we saw, the front end simply acted as a linking mechanism. Anything we clicked threw us out into a past article, review, or recipe page. Not so here. “Gold’s 101" keeps us in-app for all restaurant write-ups and data such as address and open hours. (The interactive map is on a separate page, but it opens in a new tab.)
  3. Data — This package shows the payoffs of having a newsroom with a deep bench for database work. Not only can we see all the necessary details laid out consistently for each restaurant in the list, but we can rapidly sort the list three ways: by rank, name, or price.
Forgotten Memories (Atlanta Journal-Constitution) http://memories.myajc.com/
Norway the Slow Way (The New York Times) http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/09/19/travel/reif-larsen-norway.html

Forgotten Memories and Norway the Slow Way: Neither of these won a medal, but all three judges in my group admired them as stories that truly integrate visuals and text in a way that’s balanced and graceful. I found that both of these stories pulled me in again and again whenever I began scrolling through the text without reading it. We talked about how we never felt interrupted by the appearance of a chart, map, video, or other visual as it appeared. Seamless, we said. Fluid. Natural.

The Homicide Report (Los Angeles Times) http://homicide.latimes.com/

The Homicide Report: Back to the Los Angeles Times for more database work. What impressed us was the continual updating of this feature, which made its debut in 2010, and evidence that the newsroom still mines it for new stories such as this one about L.A. County’s “death alley.”

Losing Ground (ProPublica and The Lens) http://projects.propublica.org/louisiana/
Louisiana’s Moon Shot (ProPublica and The Lens) http://projects.propublica.org/larestoration/

Losing Ground: The integration of stories (top; text on the right side) with a huge zoomable map keeps us entirely in-app at all times. As this entry was in the “Features: Coverage” category, it includes the follow-up story, for which the NASA satellite images (used in part 1) did not provide sufficiently high resolution, and higher-res images from the U.S. Geological Survey were too old. (You can read about how the journalists got the higher-res, up-to-the-minute images they needed to tell this story.) Part 2 has a very different design, which I’m not as fond of. I feel more lost in part 2, more overwhelmed by too many things — it’s more like stories we rejected for a failure to keep us focused and engaged.

The highly visual

I could not comfortably include the next three in the list above because what impressed me most about these was how satisfying they were in a wholly visual way. That’s not to say they fail to tell a story — they do tell stories — but it’s different. I’m less inclined to read the text. I’m seduced by images, or motion, and I hardly care about the words.

Distant Oasis (National Geographic) http://www.nationalgeographic.com/astrobiology/distant-oasis/

I love the explanatory animations in Distant Oasis and Cosmic Questions, part of National Geographic’s coverage of outer space. The clean, open design appealed to all the judges in my group.

What happened to Flight 370? (The Washington Post) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/world/what-happened-to-flight-MH370/

What happened to Flight 370? is just one part of The Washington Post’s extensive visual coverage of the Malaysia Airlines plane that disappeared in March 2014. I love this kind of step-by-step explainer. The collection also included the unforgettable vertical infographic The depth of the problem and the “needle in a haystack” demonstration, The scale of the search for Flight MH370. Both serve as exemplars of how to explain size and distance.

Zhou’s Power Base (Caixin) http://english.caixin.com/2014-07-29/100710458.html

Zhou’s Power Base: A beautiful interactive shows the complex network of business interests and people linked to one corrupt official, former Chinese Politburo member Zhou Yongkang. Not a medal winner, but memorable all the same for clarity and organization of information.

Summary

Inspiration for the future. That is all.

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The thoughts expressed here are mine. I do not speak for SND, for anyone associated with SND, or for my co-judges in this competition.

You might also like: (Re)defining multimedia journalism

And: The Best Online Storytelling and Journalism of 2014