Author Archives: Kevin Moloney
In my new article I explore how the New York Times Company’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning work on subjects such as the impact of slavery on U.S. culture, the feudal economy of taxi medallions, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic illustrate transmedia storytelling in daily news.
Here’s the abstract:
This feature article identifies three types of transmedia storyworlds—native, emergent, and feral—in the daily journalism work of The New York Times Company (NYT). In doing so, this case study of the NYT reevaluates how a transmedia storyworld is conceptualized, clarifies the relationship between storyworld and reference world in documentary storytelling, and illustrates the evolving transmedia journalism work of this organization. Through analysis of the NYT’s 1619 Project, New York taxi medallion economy, and COVID-19 coverage, the author defines native, emergent, and feral transmedia stories and how they can be understood across media industries.
I will be joining in a global, 24-hour live conversation on issues of design in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, sponsored by the department of design at Politecnico di Milano in Italy. My half-hour conversation with fellow transmedia designer, producer, educator, and researcher Mariana Ciancia will explore the idea of rigor in design and how that looks different for differing design tasks, how it evolves for the designer and for a mode of creative production.
The lineup for the whole 24 hours is impressive and full of unique and informative sessions. Check out the list and details on joining here.
Last week revolutionary documentary photographer Robert Frank died. Though this post is going to be about how images tell stories, I keep going back to a quote from this irascible critic of midcentury America. In a New York Times appreciation Arthur Lubow wrote, “Mr. Frank chafed like a bridled horse at conforming to a preordained narrative — as he phrased it, ‘those goddamned stories with a beginning and an end.’”
With a camera Frank was a poet of the real, who photographed like his friends Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg wrote. But a story doesn’t need to be explicit to be a story. We gain as much from what is implied as we do from what is explained. “When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice,” Frank told LIFE magazine back in 1951, on winning second place in the magazine’s young photographer contest.
This post continues the expansion of ideas on media form discussed in my recently published paper that breaks ideas of media into taxonomic ranks. When we better define the building blocks, we can more decisively build effective media. In those ranks I identify seven umbrella categories of media form: language, image, interaction, object, music, odor, and flavor. The last post expanded on language. This one expands on image.
Images are often explicit communicators — explicit enough for courtroom evidence, as documentation, or as representation. The photographs against which Robert Frank chafed not only represent the world like a list of facts, but also when combined in series they can be arranged with a beginning, middle, and end.
High-speed series of images — cinema, video — are exceptional at developing a narrative arc, and when combined with language as dialogue, narration, subtitle or interstitial texts, push further toward the complete narrative than language or image do alone.
Alone, however, images are naturally less explicit than language is when it is alone. Sensory information, contexts, events leading up to and resulting from the moment depicted are weak or absent. This requires us to imagine what is missing or add it in, consciously or unconsciously, through a prior understanding of context. The information or the story are implied, and we complete them with our own building blocks.
Creators of the many sub-forms of image — media like illustration, painting, comics, photography, cinema, animation, video, graphics, graffiti, and more — all engage unique tools to communicate explicitly and implicitly, and to mitigate the limits of their medium. In his book, Understanding Comics, Scott McLeod describes how we assemble a timeline between the fractured narrative of panel comics. The phenomenon of “closure” occurs when we imagine what happens between the panels to complete the story. By placing those panels in series, the author implies that they are connected. We do the rest.
This phenomenon also happens with still photographs and other media forms where images appear in series with wide gaps between the events depicted. This happens with cinema, video, and even text when edits jump forward to compress time.
More than a century ago Gustav Freytag described the dramatic pyramid (also often described as the dramatic arc), a classical structure starting with an exposition during which we meet characters and understand setting. It then moves up the side of the pyramid in the rising action phase during which protagonists and antagonists come into conflict. The pyramid peaks at the climax when the clash or cataclysm erupt. Then it drops into falling action as the old situation unravels, and finally the dénouement, or “new normal,” when we understand how the storyworld has changed.
Series of images in comics, photos, and film can hit all these points on the pyramid, or the hero’s journey, or a thesis argument structure, or others. This somewhat explicit arrangement limits how much imagining we do to get from one stage of a story or argument to the next.
A single still image presents a different communication challenge (or opportunity depending on the creator’s goal). A painted, drawn, assembled, or photographed image is often only one point on the dramatic pyramid leaving all of the rest of the story to be imagined or assumed, built from learned context or naked assumption. They may be exposition in the case of a portrait or a landscape, leaving us to imagine where the character might go or what will happen in that setting. It could be rising action, showing a tense, pregnant moment or situation. Many — particularly in my profession of photojournalism — are the moment of climax, allowing us to imagine how the moment came to be or how the aftermath will settle. I leave how images can land on the other two to your imagination.
Artists have long pushed against the still image as a singular moment, working to convey a sense of time passing or the context of the story or argument they wish to present. By including multiple moments in a single image, she may show different stages of the story in one frame. As the reader digests each of those moments he may experience the passing of time by reading multiple actions one by one.
As the seven umbrella media forms I described in a prior post move from left to right, they also seize emotion as a tool. Language is certainly capable of conveying the emotion of a subject or engaging the emotion of a reader, but its greater strength is communicating the invisible. Successful images all work predominantly on an emotional level. The purely factual ones are usually pretty boring.
For humans, no communication is purely explicit. We always bring something of our own to the media with which we engage. Robert Frank embraced the image as a seed for our own contexts and emotions. His images ignore the story arc in favor of the argument or the poetic stanza. They draw from us readers emotional responses to the limited set of acute facts present in them. His masterwork The Americans first angered us here with what seemed an accusation that we were not who we thought we were. Now 60 years later those images imply something else to us Americans: that we are evolving or learning; the sadness of an acceptance of imperfection; that we really haven’t evolved or learned anything. As will all poets, he showed us who we are, and that is different with each reading.
For further reading see my chapter “Transmedia Photography” in Matthew Freeman and Renira Gambarato’s invaluable The Routledge Companion to Transmedia Studies, 2019.
Media is a mess.
Yes, that socio-political entity, “The Media,” certainly faces some troubles right now. But I’m talking about the contemporary English word itself. It’s messy. It can mean all sorts of things from the goo in a petri dish to the dab on an artist’s pallet. It’s a vocal stop in music and an ancient Persian empire. And it’s also the means, modes or technologies of communication. It’s so messy that even when we write or talk about that last one, understanding of the word is situated in the experience of the listener or reader. It might mean something different to them than it does to you.
My latest academic article, “Proposing a Practical Media Taxonomy for Complex Media Production,” tackles this messiness by breaking that one word apart under three umbrella categories: Content, Media Form and Media Channel. I started down this road on this blog a few years ago, using these terms to clearly define the difference between multimedia, crossmedia and transmedia storytelling. But let’s dig in a little deeper.
I’ll come back to content in later posts. First the idea of media form merits some examples for which I didn’t have room in the linked article. Media form, one of the two terms I use to replace the vague and often-conflated singular medium, has been variously described as a language of storytelling, as semiotics, or as modes. The best way to understand what separates it from its partner media channel is that a media form can be published in many different places. The media channel is the place.
For example, text is a media form. It’s common and old (from the dawn of writing) and, as the illustration up top shows, can land almost anywhere. We see text in print, online, in skywriting and graffiti, in tattoos and crawling across the bottom of a cable news broadcast. Word-besotted humans have put it everywhere. The it is the media form, and the where is the media channel.
In my taxonomy I break the idea of media form first into seven umbrella groups: Language, Image, Interaction, Object, Music, Odor and Flavor. That left to right order spreads them across a spectrum of most explicit (language) to most implicit (flavor) in how they communicate. Language is capable of being very explicit in how it communicates, if the circumstances are right. It is capable of great detail and narrative order or disorder. Words — written or spoken — can describe the absence of something where the other media forms cannot. As Sol Worth pointed out, “Pictures can’t say ain’t.”
Language is never completely explicit, though. The reader or listener always brings her or his own experience to understanding a message.
“Gown removed carelessly. Head, less so.” — Joss Whedon
This is a little six-word story by the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s a nice example of how language is an implicit communicator too. When we read that sparse story we fill in all the blanks with our own experiences and remnants of other stories. We abhor the gaps and make up stuff to fill them ourselves.
So yes, language is the most explicit of my seven categories, but that does not mean it is entirely explicit. Nothing achieves that when humans are involved in the communication.
From the umbrella category of Language, my taxonomy creates a structure to break that idea apart into ever-more-specific language forms. It can be written or spoken. Written language can be scribbled, sprayed, puffed into clouds, or set in a type font. Spoken language breaks into conversation, lecture, voice over and more. With each new level of specificity the media form of language finds more and more advantages, more ways of communication, and differentiates what it can or cannot say.
This is where I stop saying ain’t. Up soon: Image.
Today USC Annenburg’s International Journal of Communication published my “Proposing a Practical Media Taxonomy for Complex Media Production,” and it makes for a good reason to get back to posting here regularly (at least until my students catch up with me). The abstract:
This article proposes a taxonomy of media designed to clarify the production and critique of complex media publication. I examine the conflation of ideas described by the word media and review prior taxonomic categorizations of this fuzzy concept. Media is broken into layered categories of content, media form, and media channel based on the semiotic and technological roles in mediated communication and then is described as a flow of decisions made in the creation and publication of communicative products. Finally, this taxonomy is applied to clarify the different functions of multimedia, crossmedia, and transmedia storytelling.
In the coming weeks I’ll post a series of examples that help visualize and describe some of the concepts in the article. I’ll start off with interesting examples of the concept of media form, follow with media channel, then examples of multimedia, crossmedia and transmedia storytelling. Stay tuned for those, but in the meantime, you can read or download the article here:
This article also builds on the ideas in these previous posts:
You now have an easy way to sample what we offer at the Center for Emerging Media Design and Development. We’ll be offering a trio of online training sessions through MediaShift‘s DigitalEd platform that showcase the center’s three-pronged approach to 21st-century communication design.
Understanding and solving complex strategic communication problems
Design thinking is a people-centered approach to problem solving that encourages collaborative brainstorming and diverse ideation through systematic strategies and processes. Used in a variety of fields, from product design to web development, design thinking serves as a powerful model for flexible and dynamic critical thinking that puts the audience/user at the center of idea generation.
In this session, Dr. Jennifer Palilonis will share a number of design thinking strategies and explain how they can be used by communication and media professionals to inspire innovative, engaging approaches to storytelling. Dr. Palilonis will also share how she has used design thinking in a number of diverse projects, from working with USA Volleyball to promote the growth of boys’ and men’s volleyball nationwide, to developing a digital literacy curriculum for K-3 students.
The mediascape of the 21st century is both a wicked problem and an unlimited opportunity for journalists. At the same time that powerful new storytelling tools have emerged our once-captive audiences have scattered into a dispersed mediascape. We can tell compelling stories like never before. But how do we get those stories in front of the publics that need them?
A transmedia story unfolds in multiple media forms and across many media channels in an expansive rather than redundant way. In this training Dr. Kevin Moloney will examine how Hollywood, Madison Avenue and journalism organizations like National Geographic and The Marshall Project use it to tell better and more complex stories and to reach audiences on the media they already use. We’ll talk about tools for finding those audiences, how to build reporting and publishing partnerships, and the decisions involved in transmedia project design.
The rapid pace of technological change drives not only more innovative approaches to storytelling but also new behaviors among story consumers. Understanding how audiences experience media platforms and the stories they deliver is one key to retaining and growing them in a shifting media landscape.
Applied in a wide-range of professions toward goals as diverse as the design of new digital products and improving hospital patient outcomes, user experience testing is an approach to understanding what audiences do and why they do it in order to adapt to their needs and leverage their behaviors. In this training Megan McNames will introduce a number of user experience testing strategies and explain how communication and media professionals can use them to understand readers/users and identify opportunities for growing audiences and engagement with stories. We’ll talk about what user experience testing is and isn’t, which aspects of media platforms and stories can be tested and how to implement tests with an eye toward actionable results.
I’ve written elsewhere that we’re living through a Cambrian Explosion in the ecology of media. Suddenly — if you think about the last few decades as a fragment of the timeline that stretches back to before cave painting — we can tell stories in so many media forms and on so many media channels that it would make Richard Wagner jealous enough to steal a magic ring. We can make our kunstwerk more gesamt than ever before.
And with this explosion has come a diversity of terms to describe new creations and new arrangements. Multimedia? Crossmedia? Transmedia? What is the difference? I get that question a lot, and it’s a good one.
These three terms can be divided on how they use media form and media channel. Media form is a language a story uses, and it can include text, photographs, illustrations, motion pictures, audio, graphic nonfiction, interactive forms and many others. These forms are then reproduced someplace and that place is a media channel. Journalism channels can include newspapers, magazines, books, television, radio, lectures, museums, game consoles, the Web or a mobile app among many others. There are hundreds of possibilities here.
This is an old term, dating back to before Macintosh computers that smiled at you when you turned them on. Looking for a way to describe the mix of media forms possible in the early digital age we borrowed the term “multimedia.” It spread to journalism production when news first hit the Web. Newspapers in particular grabbed the term to describe telling stories not just with words and still pictures, but also with infographics, sound and then video.
Cinema newsreels and television had been reporting news with text, sound, moving and still images and informational graphics for nearly a century. However, newspapers in the U.S. acted like they had just discovered America. They gave their “discovery” a new name despite the fact that the natives knew it was there all along. “Multimedia” is now applied to almost any kind of digital storytelling.
With multimedia you put many forms to work telling the story, and place them all on one channel. Think about a complex Web publication like the New York Times’ now infamous Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek piece. This is a clear example of multimedia storytelling at an advanced state. They use text, photographs, video, maps and interaction to tell that story, but it’s all on one Website. Though it has its weaknesses, Snowfall was so groundbreaking at launch that its name is now a verb. “To snowfall” something is to produce a Web-based story using the same aesthetics, and the Times continues to polish that style with packages like Tomato Can Blues and Extra Virgin Suicide. The Times isn’t alone either. Others like the Seattle Times’ Sea Change are equally impressive examples of multimedia storytelling.
Multimedia = One story, many forms, one channel.
This is a term that most likely originates in the advertising industry, and it means to tell a story in many different media channels. Coke added “life” to the 1970s on TV, in print and on radio. In journalism you can see very old examples of this in the venerable wire services. Agencies like The Associated Press, Reuters and others distribute a story through multiple newspapers around the world as well as magazines, radio and TV. But it is the same story, the same set of facts in pretty much the same arrangement. The distribution may include text, pictures and video, but they are all telling the same story in the same way.
A few interesting new agencies, like I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS, have tweaked this model on a regional scale to better distribute investigative journalism to news outlets strapped for cash and reporters. Where multimedia makes use of the different affordances of media form, crossmedia makes use of the different affordances of media channel. Where the use of form in multimedia appeals to the different learning styles or modes of understanding, channel is used in crossmedia to reach a broader audience.
Crossmedia = One story, many channels.
With transmedia we no longer tell just one story. We tell many stories that put the flesh on the bones of a storyworld. In journalism that storyworld may be an important issue, it may be a community or it may even be a reporter’s regular news beat. Each story is complete in and of itself, but many of them taken together expand our understanding of the larger subject.
Multiple stories on an issue or a beat are not new to journalism. But with transmedia storytelling we place those many different stories on different media channels. This broadens the audience the way crossmedia does, and gives us the incredibly valuable ability to target a journalism audience that can best use the information. Advertisers no longer “spray and pray.” They craft their ads for particular audiences and then place them right under the nose of their targets. They build efficient audiences. When that is done well their targeted publics coalesce into a more effective mass audience.
Transmedia storytelling also strives to lengthen engagement with a story by not repeating itself. We tell multiple different stories in varying forms and place them on many channels. In doing so the reader has reason to look at more than one of those stories, hopefully stretching the time they spend in our storyworld. In journalism we want to deepen engagement with the issue at hand. The longer they spend, the more valuable that information may become.
Producing transmedia in journalism requires partnerships and collaboration. Few journalists have all the skills to produce many stories in many forms all by themselves. This is a team effort, and few legacy news companies control more than one or two media channels. To truly target their audiences they will need to collaborate with the owners of other channels in a mutually beneficial manner. Journalism is no stranger to that collaboration either. For example, newspapers and television stations have partnered on stories for decades.
Transmedia = One storyworld, many stories, many forms, many channels.
Multimedia, crossmedia and transmedia are points on a fluid spectrum that blend from one to the next. Every point on that spectrum has a unique storytelling advantage, giving us a very flexible set of tools for 21st-century journalism.
Anyone who follows any news in the 21st-century mediascape has experienced this feral and uncoordinated form of transmedia journalism first hand.
Here in Colorado last month we suffered massive and destructive flooding. The story is still unfolding and the aftermath will endure for months more. When the news struck that local mountain streams would surpass 100-year flood levels, I, my friends and colleagues dove headlong into a diverse array of media forms and channels to digest the news. I turned on the local TV broadcasts, I listened actively to local public radio, I watched Twitter hashtags, Facebook posts, Instagram feeds, awaited SMS texts from the university and picked up the phone to talk to friends and relatives.
I didn’t get the story from one place — multiple devices and technologies of all ages were used. I didn’t get it in any one media form — the story came as text, video, audio, conversation and even in the clouds outside my window. I absorbed complete stories from multiple sources and sewed them into a larger and more complex picture of what was happening than I could of had I depended on only one of them.
This applies to other breaking stories, from the Navy Yard shootings to the Boston Marathon bombings to Sandy Hook Elementary. Once engaged with a story that demands fast attention, we immerse ourselves in multiple spaces in the mediascape — online and off — to gather the complete and current picture.
This is not a planned and curated form of transmedia journalism. It is a natural form created by each individual as he or she engages with the story. It illustrates the idea that we can engage with multiple characters across multiple stories in multiple places to achieve what game designer Neil Young calls “additive comprehension.”
We are deeply engaged when rapidly moving events raise cultural, civil or environmental concerns, or has an immediate impact on our lives. A drive to know more, see more and stay up-to-date leads us naturally to transmedial consumption of news. But what about the stories that don’t scream for immediate attention to any and every media form and channel available? Here, as we do for traditional news stories, we depend on style, human connection and compelling narratives to draw a public. We can carry those techniques to predesigned transmedia narratives so that, once engaged, the public has somewhere to find more. Through transmedia implementation we we also open many more access points for the public to find our story.
Transmedia journalism is designing a project to unfold across multiple media in an expansive rather than repetitive way. In the movie and music industries much of a transmedia story may be told in a film or on an album. But a series of interconnected stories or pieces of context may be told through games, comics, novels, Web media, fan fiction and even amusement parks. Those other pieces expand rather than repeat the story.
A Story World
A transmedia project explores a space that contains multiple characters who can each tell multiple stories. It’s a space that you can draw a border around, like Batman’s Gotham City or that galaxy far far away. In journalism this could be a physical space like a neighborhood, a social space like a community, or an issue space like immigration or climate change. It could also be an ongoing beat topic, like state government.
The interconnected stories from that world take advantage of the different forms media can take. These include text, audio, video, game and interactive forms, graphic nonfiction, physical artifacts, lectures and many others. These ‘languages’ tell stories in unique ways. Stories from our world should use the media form that best fits the way an individual story in our world should be told. Nearly any media form can tell a good journalistic story if we use our usual forethought and ethical rigor.
Those forms can all be distributed in multiple ways. Text, for example, can be published by newspapers, magazines, the Web, or even sidewalk chalk and sky writing. These are media channels, or connection points with an audience. As we take advantage of the media forms above, we want to take advantage of the many ways we can reach varying audiences. For example, regular newspaper readers differ from gamers in where and how they can be found. Here we decide who it is important to reach, and place media to find those audiences. Journalism options include various print media, television, radio, museums, lectures, game consoles, public projections, billboards or any other means for the stories to be seen. Nearly any media channel could be used to tell a journalistic story. Websites and mobile apps are powerful channels as they can display many of the forms listed above. But they are each only single media channels with particular audiences. They alone don’t answer all our needs.
Few organizations exist that have the skills to produce many media forms and have access to many media channels. This requires teamwork between skilled producers of different media forms as well as cooperation between the owners of various media channels. Each partner would gain from the work or distribution of the others.
What it Creates
By telling interconnected stories we can embrace the nuance and complexity that exists in any story world. Through multiple forms we can engage the different parts of our story-loving brains. By distributing them across varying channels we can target the audiences that really matter.