Martin Cloake: Two good examples of multimedia storytelling

This post originally appeared on Martin Cloake’s blog. Martin is a writer, editor and media trainer and will be attending news:rewired.

I’ve said a lot about emphasising the message more than the medium, so I thought it would be useful to look at a couple of good examples of storytelling which show what can be done with the tools now available. This is based on a session I do with students at LCC and Goldsmiths, and the point I make is that both examples give a glimpse of a step change in the way we can tell stories to our audience. Rather than simply put print on the web, we can now try to develop a genuinely original style of media that enhances the quality of what we produce, and the user experience.

The journalist who created this first example, Alexis Akwagyiram, came in to talk to students at LCC about the story, and it was a fascinating session. BBC journalists are encouraged to submit ideas for extended pieces, and Alexis based his on the 20th anniversary of the release of The Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight. Generally considered the track that spawned hip-hop – although I’d argue the case for Gil Scott Heron here – it’s an iconic slice of a genre that has become all-pervasive. Rather than do a ‘best of’ round-up, Alexis decided to look at just what effect hip-hop has had.

The first thing that struck me about the piece is that it contradicts what’s been touted as a basic principle of web journalism – keep it brief. There are more than 3,000 words in the feature. Of course, it’s more specialist than general, it’s a feature rather than news, there are plenty of entry points and a variety of media. But still, it shows how an extended and in-depth piece of journalism can work.

There are lots of nice little touches dropped in, such as this example of how the language of hip-hop has made it into the most unlikely corners of the mainstream. A box out is not a new technique but this, like the best ideas, is nice and simple and shows how a bit of thought and simple research can provide a new angle. And it’s original.

Alexis’ feature is a well-researched, well-argued and entertaining read, perfectly capable of holding a reader’s attention for longer than the average surf. But the beauty of the web is that you can do more than just tell people about something. You can provide the chance to listen to and see what you’re writing about.

Another box out encourages a little reader participation while also showcasing examples of how hip-hop has been taken up across the globe [right]. A click on any one of the tags on this graphic brings up a short video featuring artists from around the world. This device breaks up the copy and provides a fresh entry point in a traditional manner, but also changes the consumption of the feature from a passive to an active process.

Another page features a slideshow in which a former colleague of Alexis’ provides commentary on street fashion over a series of stills taken in New York. It’s worth watching for an example of how to make an entertaining piece on a high-profile subject when the budget doesn’t let you buy all the images you might want. In fact, the piece is enhanced by the use of a little lateral thinking in the picture selection department.

One of my favourite parts of the feature is this short film in which photographer Joe Conzo takes us around the neighbourhood where the scene started and tells how he came to be involved. It’s full of really nice little touches, such as Joe wearing his NYFD uniform, a marvellous still of a 14-year-old Joe with his camera, and some great images of the early flyers that advertised the events Joe’s high school buddies asked him to photograph. Again, it shows the value of a little extra thought. Instead of just showing Joe’s pictures, Alexis has asked Joe to tell his own story and illustrated the tour not only with footage, but also photos and original material that puts across some of the flavour of the times. The soundtrack is pretty good too.

I thoroughly recommend settling down to enjoy the feature in full. The four tab set-up also provides a clear illustration of the non-linear nature of web storytelling; this feature can be entered at any point and it still works.

This has proved a popular session, with punchy images and great sounds engaging students. What’s really good is seeing the light bulb come on above heads as students ‘get’ the point of all the things we’ve been discussing. Showing something that works well and breaking it down is great way to demonstrate what’s possible and to make sense of the many techniques new students on a multimedia course are exposed to.

Alexis made another interesting point, which is that to do something like this takes time. He reckoned it took him about 80 hours to do the whole thing – research, interviews, processing. That could be seen as a waste of time and resources. I prefer to see it as proof of the quality that can be achieved if journalists are given the right time and resources.

I also read, and use as an example, FLYP magazine. It’s stated aim is to “exploit the full palette of web tools to provide users with an engaging multimedia experience about the issues shaping America”, and it’s certainly got very high production values. It’s structure follows that of a traditional print magazine very closely, right down to the page-turning swf files. But there is extensive use of graphics, film and sound to enhance the material. And again, it’s anything but short. There are some long and thoughtful pieces here, but all engaging – partly because there are so many ways into each feature.

FLYP’s design team do some really nice things with type – nothing groundbreaking for anyone familiar with magazine design from the late 1980s onwards, but some of the best and most original work I’ve seen on the web. I really like the clean, bold look of the whole project.

This opening page is a pretty simple example of what FLYP does well. Some tidy graphics, a simple animation, some sound – all coming together to finish on a traditional opener. Reading through the piece provides the opportunity to see more footage and hear more of the band, with many of the arresting images being high-quality embedded videos which offer new angles on the feature.

I’m not using these as absolute examples of the way forward, just as a starting point for some consideration of how we can all use the enhanced storytelling opportunities now on offer.

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