(Re)defining multimedia journalism

New storytelling forms inspire us

Summary: “Snow Fall” was a watershed project, but we’ve already gone beyond that. Let’s focus on innovations in multimedia storytelling techniques.

There’s no consensus among journalists about what the term multimedia means, or even whether to use it anymore.

The multimedia skills listed in a job advertisement might span a range of specialties from web developer to videographer. Some ads specify “proficiency in multimedia” with no further explanation. A 2013 ad seeking a multimedia producer was more precise: “Your core duties will involve a variety of multimedia — audio, video, photos, informational graphics, and motion graphics — to support our core news content.”

“One of the most pressing needs mentioned by journalists in various countries was the acquisition of new multimedia skills,” according to findings from a recent study that surveyed more than 29,000 journalists around the world.

Despite the continuing use of the term multimedia, not every journalist thinks it should be used nowadays. Eric Maierson, a producer at MediaStorm since 2006, hates the word multimedia. There is irony in that, because until recently, MediaStorm called itself a “multimedia production studio.” However, Maierson explained: “I believe ‘multimedia’ is the word we’ve come to use when describing photographers who make documentaries.” (Nowadays MediaStorm calls itself a “film production and interactive design studio” and produces mostly video documentaries. Past projects include Crisis Guide: Iran, a good example of pre–“Snow Fall” multimedia.)

Multimedia journalism used to look like this. Crisis Guide: Iran, produced for the Council on Foreign Relations by MediaStorm http://www.cfr.org/interactives/CG_Iran/index.html

Like Maierson, Robyn Tomlin said she would not use the word multimedia today. Tomlin is editor of Thunderdome, a division of Digital First Media, a New York–based media organization. Thunderdome is (or was) the company’s hub for digital content distribution, production, and training. Instead of multimedia, she said, “I would say video and interactives.” She characterized “interactives” as data reporting, database applications, and other news apps “that help the reader understand the story you’re trying to tell” (interview with the author, September 2013).

From a video produced by Digital First Media in 2013: “How Civil War Soldiers Fought in the Battle of Gettysburg” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gxg8fgIxm3w

A high-end project that stimulated discussion about the possibilities of multimedia is a New York Times digital story from 2012, “Snow Fall.” This ambitious and much-praised project combined video, animated graphics, maps, audio, and photo slideshows with a 17,000-word text story divided into six parts. It employed kinetic web coding techniques—often lumped together under the term parallax scrolling—that emerged in 2012. Although it was not the first journalism story to employ those techniques, “Snow Fall” was seen by many as a kind of watershed in multimedia and online storytelling, and the fact that it attracted almost 3 million site visits in its first 10 days makes it an important reference point.

Snow Fall, The New York Times, 2012 http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2012/snow-fall/

We should not forget that producing multimedia content is as much about mindset as skills. Imitators of “Snow Fall” might mistakenly add bells and whistles that do nothing to enhance the story itself.

Multimedia storytelling continues to evolve as more journalists experiment with the possibilities opened up by new digital tools and techniques.

I recommend three more recent examples that thrust the form in new and compelling directions:

What can we learn from those very different stories?

Complement, don’t repeat. In multimedia storytelling, various media types (not only video) are employed and interconnected. Ideally, each one is used in a way that makes the most of its strengths. Components of the story are crafted to complement one another. Redundancy will detract from the experience—that is, if aspects of the story are told in video and also in the text, users might lose interest quickly.

NSA Files Decoded, The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/world/interactive/2013/nov/01/snowden-nsa-files-surveillance-revelations-decoded

Integrate media types. Don’t marginalize the visual media. Don’t privilege the text. Position information graphics where they serve the story, not the layout.

Simplify. When planning stories, journalists must decide what really needs to be included, and what can be omitted. Adding too many parts and pieces can make a story overly complicated and even off-putting (too long; didn’t read). We don’t need thousands of words in text.

Planet Money Makes a
T-shirt, NPR http://apps.npr.org/tshirt/

Grab the audience’s attention visually. An enjoyable story offers a hook, a call to action, immediately, as soon as you open it.

Nonlinear does not need to be complicated. Multimedia packages usually provide options for navigating the story. Often the options are nonlinear, unlike a print or broadcast news story. We can skip to any part we choose. Any two users might take two entirely different pathways through the story. (This can raise questions about what information and context the users will miss — and yet, events and situations in real life are always viewed differently by the different people involved in them.) Multimedia storytelling offers journalists an opportunity to show various facets of a story in parallel, layered, juxtaposed—but it need not be overwhelming.

The Serengeti Lion, National Geographic http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/serengeti-lion/index.html

Low interactivity is okay. Some multimedia stories invite interaction with the user (the viewer, the reader), but many offer a mostly passive experience. Calling these stories interactive is not accurate in many cases—if a user has no choices apart from clicking play, pause, or stop, that story is not interactive. Scrolling on a website or swiping on a mobile device provides only the lowest level of interaction. Hyperlinks are barely interactive; clicking a link is like turning the page of a book.

Immersive experiences rule. Take me somewhere I have never been. Show me something I have never seen.

Good journalistic judgment is still needed. The journalist supplies organization and order, but too much of either imposes the journalist’s view of reality. Opening the story to broader interpretations represents a loss of control that disturbs some observers (including some journalism educators as well as some journalists). The decisions about what is included and what is left out still belong to a project’s producers.

Should we continue to use the term multimedia journalism? We need to be able to discuss and critique the evolution of journalism story forms and the wonderful possibilities brought forward by digital and interactive platforms. Multimedia storytelling seems as good a term for this as any. Let’s never limit it to video and photo stories. Let’s embrace all the media types and integration open to us, and continue learning how to use them to help people understand the world we live in.

Some of this essay comes from a book chapter, “Multimedia Journalism,” by Mindy McAdams, in Ethics for Digital Journalists: Emerging Best Practices, edited by Lawrie Zion and David A. Craig, to be published by Routledge in October 2014.

Update (Oct. 10, 2014): Now published.

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