Tag Archives: storytelling

Within Limits and Free of Constraints

Paul F. Moloney photographs from the sidelines of a football game in 1957, for the Greeley Tribune. My father worked through the apex of one-to-many mass media in the U.S. (Photo by Bob Waters)

There are times when a constraint is fuel for the creative process. As a veteran photojournalist I know deeply how the need to tell an entire story within a small frame, by slicing a millisecond from the unstoppable flow of time can heighten my awareness, accelerate my storytelling skills and open the adrenalin valve. In journalism as a whole, constraints can lead to cleaner and more efficient stories.

But those constraints are largely a product of the mediascape of prior centuries. Classic journalism forms like the inverted pyramid structure, the ten-column-inch story or the 30-second broadcast news segment all came into being because space and time in legacy media was scarce and expensive. And those constraints have been in front of us for so long that they ceased to be just involuntary constraints and have become journalistic standards. Even as the cheap and plentiful Web has broken those restrictions, I have heard many veteran journalists argue that those classic forms are the only real journalism out there.

But what is journalism? I argue that it is simply telling a factual story reported by someone who was rigorous in his or her effort to eliminate assumptions and verify facts, and produced carefully for a concerned public. It isn’t defined by style, structure or medium. We now have virtually unlimited ways to tell a factual story and, in online media at least, an extremely low publishing cost. Stories that justify expansion are far less limited by the economics of the media.

The best journalism will always be efficient in its use of space and time. Daily coverage of boilerplate stories generally do not need expansive transmedia coverage to do their job well. They should stay concise and limited in the time they demand from the engaged public. But when major stories emerge that have complexity, nuance and deep connections to many other stories in our world, then transmedia storytelling is a valuable method.

Transmedia entertainment continues to grow. The transmedia-native SLiDE, an Australian Fox8 teen drama, unfolds on screen and expands through social media designed to give its teen fans a sense of ownership in the story. I was recently impressed by the transmedia worldbuilding efforts of the Ninjago toy series from Lego, in which a backstory of epic style was built for those funny little Lego characters. Academy-Award-nominated Chico & Rita has planted its story in front of new audiences through a comic and music. And dozens of documentary film projects in production declare themselves transmedia projects.

In journalism new tools continue to emerge. Deep Dive from the New York Times adds new degrees of drillablility to their massive archive, and the array of games published by the Times continues to grow. The explosive growth over the past few years of Tribune Media Group’s ChicagoNow and TribLocal confirm that the public is ready for a sense of ownership of their news as well as deeper engagement with it.

LUCEO Images' innovative Greater than the Sum exhibition

This is not simply a big-media game, however. I continue to watch with pride as my former students find new ways to bring their work to the public through both traditional media and its alternatives. They not only fuel their work but reach new audiences through crowd funding. They offer lectures on their stories, line gallery walls with their storytelling images and collect artifacts that connect to their stories. They reach out to the public by any logical means, and they do it alone or in small collectives.

Transmedia journalism does require more advance planning than other kinds of coverage. Decisions need to be made on questions like what the keystone medium will be, how will the story expand (not repeat) through other media, and what subset stories lend themselves to a particular medium. Our constraints of space and possibility are gone.

But what about limits? Fortunately for us we can call our limits self imposed. We can produce journalism within logical limits based only on the value of a story, the attention of our publics and the budget at hand. We can now work within limits even as we are free of old constraints.

The latest major piece of Contexts information is now up, and it looks at ways a transmedia journalism story can be told. Read on for more transmedia thinking. Drill deeper.


Lost in a Matrix of Avatars: Principles of Transmedia

In late 2009, media scholar, transmedia describer and master builder of lists Henry Jenkins outlined his “Seven Principles of Transmedia Storytelling.” The pair of blog posts went a long way to shape the entertainment industry’s understanding of what transmedia storytelling does out there, once it is let loose. Their title, “Revenge of the Origami Unicorn,” refers to a clue to deeper stories that makes a brief appearance in Blade Runner, and is an invitation for the viewer’s imagination or sleuthing instincts to launch.

You may be awaiting that origami yourself, hoping soon the unicorn drops and leads to what transmedia journalism will be. I promise that is up soon, in pages rich with examples. But first I want to set the stage for some principles of transmedia journalism by looking at Jenkins’ principles in entertainment. These will hopefully be an invitation to imagine transmedia journalism on your own. They are:

  • Spreadability — Stories are compelling enough to be spread through fan interaction. What stories do you want to share?
  • Drillability — Stories inspire deeper investigation, engaging the fans to explore the story’s context, and solve intricacies or mysteries. Keep the gaps of The Matrix or the layers of Lost in mind with this one.
  • Continuity — Here multiple stories exist within the same defined world, and maintain coherence and plausibility. Think of how tightly the many stories of the Star Wars galaxy fit together.
  • Multiplicity — Though continuity is highly prized, a multiplicity of story possibilities may make a tale more fun or a richer experience for fans. Look at how the 2009 reimagining of the very continuous Star Trek story upended the characters’ lives, or drill around for alternate tellings of familiar tales, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Spider-Man India.
  • Immersion — A good tale, a good character or a rich story world pulls us in and lets us forget ourselves and feel present at the scene. When was the last time you forgot you were in a theater or paging through a novel? Did the impressive 3-D of Avatar pull you into the silver screen?
  • Extractability — What can a fan take away from the story and bring into their own life? From Captain Kirk lunch boxes to the action figures of Star Wars and even the theme parks of modern entertainment franchises, more and more things and places that contribute to the grand story are available to us.
  • Worldbuilding — Each story in a transmedia franchise contributes to the complexities of the world in which they take place. Remember how C.S. Lewis built Narnia in the imaginations of readers?
  • Seriality — Serial stories are not new. From Dickens’s serialized novels to Harry Potter, the unfolding of a tale has held onto us like a Dallas cliffhanger. A serial keeps us in a story world longer.
  • Subjectivity — No, this isn’t that thing we work to avoid in journalism. Here Jenkins means a transmedia story embraces the varying points of view of multiple characters. Ever read Bram Stoker’s Dracula? The whole frightening novel is constructed from personal and subjective letters, allowing us to see the same story through multiple eyes.
  • Performance — A transmedia story may inspire a fan to act. What stories inspired us to play when we were young (or when we’re old and nobody is looking)? A good story — a really good one — can grab us so thoroughly that we want to act it out ourselves or write a new installment of the tale. As geeky as that sounds, it is a real mark of deep engagement.

These principles are fleshed out in greater detail and with many examples on the Transmedia Principles page linked near the top of the right column or under Contexts at the very top of the page. Read on. Drill deeper.


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