There are many different ways to present news and information whether on or offline, but the best stories and messages often shine through the most appropriate mediums. Choose the right medium for your project and you could become a YouTube sensation, a Pulitzer-prize winning author, a renown photographer, a prominent podcaster or an online rock star. But choose the wrong medium and your project’s true potential might never be realized. By understanding the advantages and challenges of mediums, such as writing, video, photo essays, audio slideshows, websites, audio and infographics, you’ll know how to make effective multimedia decisions.
Working at the Burlington Free Press, I had the opportunity to debate the merits of various mediums for projects. Early on I came across a great post, “Cheat sheet for multimedia storytelling” by Mindy McAdams that helped guide my opinion on this topic. The post showcased a helpful list by Regina McCombs outlining strengths of several mediums. I wanted to create a similar list based on my experiences and offer pertinent examples.
- background information
- breaking news
- links help readers delve into an issue (previous stories, raw data, etc.)
- highly searchable
- can be scanned
- can be published quickly and altered with updates or corrections
- reaches a broad audience via cross platform publishing (mobile, print, online)
- relatively cheap to produce
How do you convey multidimensional events, personalities, conflicts and challenges with words?
The New York Times’ reporting of US Airways Flight 1549 landing in the Hudson River began with text. As more quotes and details trickled in, the reporters made changes to the story, writing through the original piece. Eventually, The Times added photos, graphics and videos, but when the news broke, text led the way. In this instance, technical demands of other mediums could have gotten in the way of quickly disseminating the information.
- evoking a gut reaction
- telling a simple story
- photos stop time allowing viewers to study individual moments
- photos transcend language barrier
- versatility allows for a wide range of subjects
How do you tell a story with just a few images? The images must be strong enough to stand alone with minimal text. Photos should bridge all necessary gaps to tell a story or convey a message.
Los Angeles Times photojournalist Rick Loomis won the Pulitzer Prize for his photo essay “Altered Oceans” which documents the plight of our seas. Because this is a global issue, a photo essay is an appropriate choice as it transcends language barriers. The images of dead animals and polluted waters evoke a gut reaction regardless of who views the essay.
- powerful voices
- natural sound
- portability lets people listen while on the go
How do you create vivid images and portraits through audio? Will your message/story be clear enough that people won’t need to rewind or pause the audio? Podcasts and radio are a favorite of commuters and runners, so your audio must also engage a multitasking audience.
I couldn’t pick just one NPR program or podcast to highlight. The radio station is acutely aware that it often plays to a multitasking audience, and the shows are easily digested while driving or exercising.
- focus on individual moments
- audio transports viewers to the moment of a photograph
How can you elevate the audio slideshow beyond a traditional photo essay? The photos and audio must compliment each other. Whereas video traditionally relies on sequences, the strength of an audio slideshow is often its focus on individual moments.
My favorite audio slideshow is a New York Times production “Free and Uneasy: The First Year Out.” Seven people worked on this story of a man exonerated after 16 years in prison for a rape and murder he didn’t commit. The audio of Jeffrey Deskovic as he tells his story is absolutely chilling. The photos match Deskovic’s narration of his struggles as a free man.
- real, familiar, authentic
- can incorporate other mediums (text, photos, animations, audio, graphics, etc.)
- often watched in groups
Because we see the world similarly to video, this is one of the hardest mediums to fake. Either the on-camera authenticity will shine or people will see right through the facade. Also, longer videos are a tough sell online, so the beginning is of paramount importance. Think of the first 30 seconds as an audition for someone’s time. Recently, there has been a surge in the popularity of streaming online video. In another post, I discuss when to stream live video versus video on demand.
The Burlington Free Press needed a way to expand its annual donation plea to online readers, so I partnered with the leaders of seven Vermont charities to create a Giving Season video. I asked leaders of each charity to read a script I’d prepared for the project. This was particularly risky given that the charity leaders are not actors, but their sincerity helped the concept succeed. I chose to create a video partly to reach an online audience, but the medium also helps put a face to those who benefit from charities.
- showcasing data
- displaying personalized information like news near you and facts that directly affect your life
- helps break down complex problems
- lets audience decide what path to follow
- numbers can create conversation
How will you use data and graphics to tell a story? Great infographics use a combination of data and design to trigger action or reaction.
My friend and former Free Press colleague Jacqueline Kazil worked on a great infographic for The Washington Post, telling the story of a lawsuit against the NFL’s Washington Redskins. The infographic does a good job of breaking down a thorny issue. Here’s what Jacqueline said about the project:
“With the Redskins investigation, there were a couple of elements to the story that we were trying to tell. One was that there was a waiting list of people wanting to buy Redskins tickets who were not able to. That story, better told in words.
The infographic addresses the other part of the investigation, which was the lawsuits and the overlap of the resales. We started with two separate sets of data. One was a list of seats being sold by a broker and the other was a list of lawsuits and the seats that they involved. We processed and matched up the two sets to see where they overlapped. We could only definitively say that the lawsuits and resales were coinciding if we had the exact seat number and the date of the game for which they were resold. The stadium graphic gives you a visual of the distribution of the five seats that overlapped in lawsuit and resale, along with the density of lawsuits and resales. There were many layers to the data and the interactive graphic allows users to explore specific elements, for example the lawsuit results. This would have been impossible to do in a written article. The story would have been unfocused. You might as well be reading the court papers themselves.
If you find yourself explaining something in great detail that distracts from the progression of the story, you need an infographic to take over. In some cases, infographics tell a story better than words could. USA Today and The Sun Sentinel have a strong tradition of dominating a story with a graphic even as their main art on the front page of the print edition.”
- conveying news, information and data
- solving problems through queries
- websites can be static or wildly dynamic
- can tie in other mediums or platforms
- can personalize the experience for different visitors
- analytics help understand how visitors interact
How will your website stand out from the millions of sites that already exist? How will you incorporate new technologies to engage visitors?
Students at the Ohio University School of Visual Communication do a great job each year building a website that explores the diverse community of Athens, Ohio. “Soul of Athens” works particularly well as a website because it is a collaboration of so many talented students. The site takes full advantage of the web, using multimedia and integrating social media tools to create a conversation about the project. An added bonus is that the site is optimized for mobile phones.
Rules are meant to be broken
It’s worth noting that there are no hard, fast rules about what mediums work best for stories. While this outline can serve as a guide for making multimedia decisions, there are great works that defy my criteria for mediums. Here are three examples.
1. The first four minutes of the movie “The Kingdom” offers a history of the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, a complex topic for which authors have written hundreds of books. The collage of news clips and graphics makes the issue easy to understand and provides necessary background information to set the stage for the rest of the movie.
2. Rather than focus only on individual moments in an audio slideshow, Ed Kashi’s “Iraqi Kurdistan” places emphasis on sequences as well. A flipbook-style slideshow provides a unique portrait of daily life Iraqi Kurdistan.
3. Using audio to explore a convoluted topic like the cause of our recent economic woes might seem like a fools errand, but The Giant Pool of Money breaks the issue into language anyone can understand. Here’s how Kevin Kelly described it: “By far the best explanation I’ve heard of the Housing Mortage/Credit Crisis is — improbably — a podcast from the mother-lode of storytelling on NPR, This American Life. This podcast is a bit different from their usual slice-o-life stories in that they try to explain something extremely complex and abstract — but in personal stories. The episode is…worth at least an hour of your time on your next commute. Hearing the agents all along the ‘chain’ of events describe what they thinking in their own words is about 100 times better than reading about it.”