Monthly Archives: November 2011

Transmedia Journalism in Principle

A factual story can be told in more ways and more places than journalists usually consider. © Kevin Moloney, 2010

Here’s a miniature manifesto for transmedia journalism:

We journalists need to find the public across a very diverse mediascape rather than expecting them to come to us. The days of the captive journalism audience are over, and if we hope to serve our ideals of democracy, human rights, environment and positive social change, we need to find a broad public.

To make our stories salient we need to engage the public in ways that fit those particular media. We lose an opportunity to reach new publics and engage them in different ways when we simply repurpose the same exact story for different (multi) media. Why not use those varying media and their individual advantages to tell different parts of very complex stories? And why not design a story to spread across media as a single, cohesive effort?

To define our goals I’ll remix and repurpose Henry Jenkins’ principles of transmedia storytelling to fit the journalist’s cause. There’s nothing new to invent for them. Examples of all of these principles have already appeared in journalism, they just haven’t been sewn together in a predesigned and expansive story campaign. This is no more a “digital first” idea than it is an entity of ink-on-paper or Murrow-esque broadcast news. But it could embrace all three of those methods as well as games, virtual reality, museum installations or even paper airplanes. It also requires no change in the ethical ideals journalists value.

Transmedia journalism should be:

  • Spreadable: What makes a story infectious? How can we and do we inspire the public to share the stories we craft among their own networks, so they reach beyond our core public? Examples.
  • Drillable: How can we activate the public’s curiosity, enough to sleuth out more depth and detail on their own? If there is more to be found — either among our own extensions of the storyline or among the world’s social and data networks — the public’s engagement will be deeper. Examples.
  • Continuous and serial: As our stories expand across an array of media, how can they keep their continuity of shape, color and tone even as they leverage the strengths of each individual medium? By letting the story unfold across those media in series, would we keep public attention longer? Examples.
  • Diverse and personal in viewpoint: Can reporting from a variety of perspectives strengthen the telling of a complex story or engage new publics we might have otherwise missed? What can we gain from letting the public in on the process and result of journalistic work? Examples.
  • Immersive: We always want to draw our publics deeper into a story, to the point they forget they may be separate from it. How can we put alternative storytelling forms to work on a complex story, to better explain a system or help the public understand a story’s impact on its subjects? Examples.
  • Extractable: What can the public take away from our work and put to use in their everyday lives? The more our reporting enters their world, the more engaged the public will be. Examples.
  • Of real worlds: All our stories are the product of a real, complex and multifaceted world that is the envy of fiction writers. What can we do to embrace this complexity and nuance in journalism instead of always simplifying that world? Examples.
  • Inspiring to action: Most of us become journalists in hope of changing the world for the better. How can we inspire the public to put down our pages or step away from the screen and fix a problem or reward a success? Examples.

For a more detailed look at these qualities and how they have worked individually already continue on to the full Transmedia Journalism Principles page under Contexts at the top of the window, or linked at the top of the column on the right. If you just tuned in, find more context to these ideas in earlier posts on this blog and their related pages.

Coming next: Building it. It may not be as complicated as you think.

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Old Models in a New Mediascape

© Paul F. Moloney

Almost two decades into the Internet revolution few would dispute that the very nature of communication has changed. For centuries professional media of all sorts have relied on a one-way channel between themselves and their audiences. Entertainment, propaganda and information flowed from the top down — from one producer to many recipients who had few ways to talk back. But the appropriately named Web, when combined with powerful, cheap and ubiquitous production tools now in a pocket or purse, has changed communication from one-to-many to many-to-many. This change may be completely irrevocable — a genie out of a bottle.

Before the turn of the century the media all started working on solutions to hold onto their markets and their revenue streams in the face of this change. They’ve all at one time or another slammed the door with lawsuits or opened the store to encouraged sharing. Advertising has found success in the social nature of this new mediascape, and Hollywood has survived by raising the bar of production values ever higher and learning to tell stories across media in an expansive way. The music and journalism businesses are having a more difficult time of it.

Superficially it appears journalists either ignored the digital age or simply hoped it would go away as legacy news media have never seemed to find a solid foothold in the newer communication model. But, “the problem newspapers face isn’t that they didn’t see the internet coming,” writes New York University’s Clay Shirky in a blog post examining the troubles in the industry. “They not only saw it miles off, they figured out early on that they needed a plan to deal with it, and during the early 90s they came up with not just one plan but several.”

“Convergence” is the term applied to many of these plans, and that term often means different things to different media companies. The earliest idea involved spreading the content of one classic medium to another, such as running a newspaper’s content also on TV, radio and the Web the way the Tribune Company has. Another notion of convergence is the quickly fading “black box” idea where all content will converge onto a single device. And the last is an idea still popular in journalism schools. “Backpack journalists,” carrying still cameras, video and audio equipment and a laptop would produce their stories for multiple media formats from the start.

That last idea was illustrated by New York Times media correspondent and Twitter powerhouse David Carr in an October 2011 interview with Fresh Air host Terry Gross. “I look at my backpack that is sitting here, and it contains more journalistic firepower than the entire newsroom that I walked into 30 to 40 years ago,” he said, describing still and video cameras, audio recorders and computers and their constant connection the vast research repository of the Internet.

Despite this work to spread stories into other media, the story stays the same. Content is simply being repurposed for the new medium rather than being told in a way that uses the advantages of each medium, an idea from which Hollywood and Madison Avenue are moving away in favor of a transmedia approach.

But what’s the point in finding a new place and method for legacy news media in a many-to-many, media-glutted environment? Carr noted in the same interview that although we all have access now to an endless news feed through the Web, social networking and other sources, legacy media could take up the role of looking back to point out what, among that “huge fire hose of data that’s washing over us all,” was important:

All this stuff has gone whizzing past me, and I seem to know a lot, but I don’t really know which part of it is important … I’d go to our page-one meeting and they would be organizing this hierarchy of the six or seven most important stories in Western civilization. Meanwhile the Web is above them pivoting and alighting on all these stories are morphing and changing and I thought, ‘how silly is this?’ But you know what? I came to want that resting place where someone yelled stop and decided, look, this is the stuff you need to know about going forward. There’s both real-time news, and then newspapers have become kind of a magazine experience for me where it’s a way to look back at what has happened.

For a more detailed look into these changes, go to the Where Journalism has Gone Before page linked near the top of the right column or under Contexts at the very top of the page. Read on. Drill deeper.