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Lessons from judging nearly 400 multimedia stories and a Q&A with Steve Duenes

Bad internet is born out of lack of prioritization, collaboration and focus. It’s up to us to change that.

(Clockwise from top left) NYT, NYT, New Republic, SF Chronicle, Huffington Post, NYT

Last month Rob Finch, Juan Thomassie, and I judged NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism Multimedia Contest 2017. The contest has been running since 2001 and celebrates the best of visual journalism, both domestic and international. Rob, Juan and I watched more than 380 multimedia entries. The entries ranged in length, size, scope, scale, and format. Formats varied from short videos to feature-length films to 360- degree video and web-native stories. They were all competing for our attention and empathy. The entries came from organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post, Nanook, New Republic, CNN, Univision, The Seattle Times, The Huffington Post, independent journalists, etc.

I took four full days to watch all the entries, and that was before the two-day in-person judging at Ohio University. Watching the entries I laughed, cried, felt angry, helpless, hopeless, and frustrated (I know I’m corny af). But you have to remember, we were asked to relive 2016.

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with contests — folks both say it’s not about the awards and then list what they’ve won on their bios (guilty as charged). I’m less interested in the awards and more interested in what they say about our industry and our storytelling.

I think we can do better. I think we can be kinder to our audiences. I think we can both inform and entertain. I think these six areas are where we need to start. Bad internet is born out of lack of prioritization, collaboration, and focus.

It’s up to us to change that.

Serve ads people love (or at least don’t hate)

Advertising matters — we know this, most of can’t live without it. But we need to think about how advertising, design, and the user experience come together to impact our audience. After four days of being bombarded with online advertising, I wanted to throw my laptop out the window. Between pop-up ads, pre-roll, aggressive newsletter sign ups, auto playing video — my mood slowly shifted from mild discomfort to rage. There needs to be an honest and ongoing conversation between ad operations, product and editorial in service of the user. Ads can be seamlessly integrated into storytelling experiences. Megan Walton, Vox Media’s executive director of revenue product, has my favorite quote on this — “We set out to fix shitty advertising on the internet. We care about the experience and our users, not just making money. We don’t want to serve ads people hate — we want to serve ads people are genuinely interested in.” Preach.

Design for your audience

You can tell when a newsroom doesn’t appreciate this by the product they provide. If you think design is picking the right typeface or “laying out the page,” consider having more conversations with folks that know this language. Designing digital stories is a mix of artistry, math, technology, and research. Design is the front lines in delivering your story to the audience. Design is about serving the audience, and if you don’t have that voice early on in the process, you risk failing them and the story. If your designers are working in a silo or are brought in to “make things look pretty and work,” then you may want to reconsider your workflow.

Integrate content

Audiences are more sophisticated, mobile and have more options. So this means creating a seamless experience from the first moment they see your headline and promotional image to the last sentence of the story (if they get there). How does this translate to making stories? Ensure the elements relate to each other, are essential to the story, and do not include content that is redundant. If you produce a large investigative package and leave it up to the user to choose whether to watch a 30-minute video, interact with a large dataset, and/or read a 5,000 word essay, you have not done your job as curators, editors and storytellers. Aim to give users less choices and a seamless experience.

Be mindful of your audience’s time

Now is not the time to bury the lede, to expect your audience will stay for the big reveal two-thirds into your story. I’m not saying put all your goods in the first three paragraphs, but put enough there to convince folks to stay with you. You need to communicate why this story matters and, better yet, how much of their time it will take. If after watching the first minute of a video I don’t know where the story is going, I’m gone. If after three paragraphs I’m still confused as to what you are going to tell me, I’ll find the information elsewhere. If you bait and switch, if you promise something specific and deliver something else, I won’t come back (and believe me I will remember).

Share your language in the newsroom

As storytellers we need to listen, read, watch and consume all types of media, and we should be able to seamlessly understand the different languages that reside in a newsroom. Writers should understand visual voice. Photographers need to understand narrative structures. Developers need to understand tone, pacing and how to emphasize a plot point. Editors should understand how to create different expressions of the same story on multiple platforms — which means they need to critically consume content on all these platforms. In my experience, when folks push back it’s because they are fearful of what they don’t know and what they can’t control. Demystifying our creative processes and talents is key to healthy collaborations and better storytelling.

Prioritize diversity

Diversity is just as imperative to our credibility as accurate sourcing. Yet, many folks are left making the same case over and over and over again in different areas of the newsroom. Of the approximately 380 entries we spent time with, the vast majority of visual journalists behind the camera were men, mostly white men. As judges we try our best to award with impartiality, but we should all be critical of the diversity of voices that are being elevated. And if they are skewed towards one gender, nationality or race — then we need to start asking why.

This year, the BOP award for Best Use of Multimedia went to The Fine Line by The New York Times. I remember when this dropped, our team collectively stopped and jumped into Slack raving about the storytelling. While Steve Duenes, NYT assistant masthead editor, doesn’t get to oversee many stories these days, he did so in this case. He graciously agreed to answer a few questions, for all of us to learn what it takes to make stories like this one.


Q&A with Steve Duenes

First, let me say congratulations. The Fine Line won Best Use of Multimedia beating out over 380 multimedia stories from news organizations around the world. I won’t speak for the other judges, but in my mind it was a clear winner because of its content, design, user experience, and impact.

Can you walk us through the project from initial idea to the final product? There are over 25 folks credited on this piece. How did this village of talent come together to create this?

This piece was part of a series of four profiles: Simone Biles, Ryan Lochte, Derek Drouin and Christian Taylor, and these kinds of Olympics features have a little history at The Times. If you look back at the 2014 Olympics, there was a similar series examining the mechanics behind the athleticism, and there have been other comparable projects from 2012 and even 2010.

It’s fairly obvious but on any project, we start with the reporting, and Joe Ward and Bedel Saget did the bulk of the reporting on this. Leslye Davis reported for the project as well, and she shot a lot of the video.

Once we had a rough sense of the story outline, we started thinking about the structure of the piece, and how we might design and develop it. This project worked differently than some of the more-traditional written articles at The Times. Here, the way it looked and the way a reader interacted with it was the shape of the story. In this case, design was editing.

In 2014, we made similar Olympics stories into an experiment in scrolling video with short text blocks as transitions. But those stories were mostly video, so a reader’s progress through each piece was kind of uneven. They would read, then watch …. then read again, and watch …. and so on. This time we wanted less cumbersome switching between reading and watching. We wanted each “step” of the story to be a similar cognitive chunk for the reader. There are plenty of models for this kind of card-based structure, but we were looking to elevate the form somewhat so that we could tell a more complex story.

The four main contributors on the design were Alicia DeSantis, Alexandra Garcia, Joe Ward and Rodrigo De Benito Sanz, with Rodrigo as the principal designer. He gave the idea a real shape and a look, which helped the editing as it went forward.

At the same time, there were other editors at work on video, audio effects, 3-D modeling and the motion capture data we gathered. When you watch the video of Simone Biles’s tumbling passes, you see a kind of “stream” effect, which is a visualization of that motion capture data.

As you point out, there were a lot of contributors on this story, but some people added smaller elements while the core team did the majority of the work. On many days, people would make progress, and then we’d assemble at the end of the day to see how things were coming together.

Talk to me about any difficulties during the collaboration? What were the major challenges?

These are ambitious projects, and there are more contributors than other stories, so it’s a challenge to manage all the possible directions the piece can take and establish a consensus around a single approach. There’s a lot of discussion, but ultimately, we have to make decisions. I think we’re helped by our tight deadlines. Everyone understands that disputes can’t linger, and disagreements tend to fade quickly.

You cleverly integrated an Infiniti sponsorship and other advertisements into the project. Was that a conversation? What were the considerations for the audience?

Our advertising colleagues sold a sponsorship, and there were some general requirements for ad placements, but we had flexibility for the execution within the package, so we tried to strike the right balance, making the advertising apparent but not a distraction. There was a healthy conversation, and our advertising department was supportive of our approach.

How would you describe this type of storytelling?

There are lots of flavors of visual journalism, and this particular slice is built around video, but it isn’t a video. It would be great if readers didn’t think of this story as any particular type, but simply consumed it without considering anything other than the story itself.

Any advice for smaller newsrooms that have big ambitions to create experiences like this for their audience?

In the end, this piece is a step-by-step story with video, written passages and motion graphics. Any newsroom can create a comparable experience if they focus on reporting that includes gathering visual assets, and they keep the design simple. Lately, we’ve been building stories around sequences of 10-12 photos, but they aren’t slideshows. They’re narratives written to the visuals, and they’re compelling because of the quality of the pictures and the story. This sort of thing is well within reach of smaller teams.

Special thanks to Ohio University Viscom faculty and student body for their hospitality during the BOP judging. And again, thank you Steve, for taking the time to share your knowledge.