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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.
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.
My new technical report, issued by the University of Colorado Boulder’s ATLAS Institute, is now available. The paper extensively discusses the differences between media form and media channel in building a transmedia journalism story world.
ATLAS TR 2012-11-02
This paper examines the emergent entertainment and advertising technique of transmedia storytelling as a method for journalists to target their work to an increasingly dispersed public across an unlimited array of both digital and analog media. In doing so, I argue, journalists can better reach a relevant and decisive public with more engaging, complex and nuanced stories. I will examine the elements of transmedia storytelling, and discuss how different parts of its method have been used in two journalistic cases. I will conclude with a hypothetical example of how it might be used to fullest effect.
To obtain the full document, send an e-mail to email@example.com.
As a photojournalist I once spent several off-and-on years documenting the rise of pentecostalism in Latin America. Lately that situation looks a lot like the state of journalism, its public and the arguments of some journalists about it.
Once the stronghold of the Roman Catholic Church, Latin America is turning Protestant. There people have been flocking for decades to upstart Protestant churches, particularly pentecostal ones. There are many and complicated reasons for this, but among them is that these little upstarts seem to directly address the needs of their communities. First they put churches in accessible locations like old movie theaters and storefronts in low-income neighborhoods. Then they provide daycare and job training to their congregations which are made up in significant numbers by single mothers. And by letting those congregations in on the service’s conversation they inspire a deep engagement with that community and its leaders. Services there are interactive and passionate by any observer’s measure.
By contrast, the old-line Catholic churches there tend to be centered around big, elaborate and baroque structures in the center of the cities where they are three bus transfers from the homes of the people they most hope to serve. On their altars are priests — mostly foreigners — who deliver pretty much the same information as the insurgent churches, but with a time-worn and emotionless demeanor. The pews are nearly empty and those sitting in them are mostly the elderly. Like many Catholic priests around the world, they remind the newcomers who show up on Christmas or Easter that they will go to hell if they don’t attend every Sunday.
Both kinds of church offer the same basic story, and both believe that this information is critical for the wellbeing of their congregations. It’s just the style of delivery that’s different, but the results have culture-changing impact on a continent where the Catholic tradition and local culture are deeply intertwined. “They are destroying Brazilian culture,” an anthropologist once told me. “You’re not supposed to samba if you’re a member of one of these churches.”
For journalists (like me) journalism is a religion too. Like other religions it has a long history, dogma, ritual, and a well-formed system of ethics that helps us structure what we say and how we act. We are passionate about what we do and the information we deliver, and we truly believe that it is something society needs to prevent it from going to hell. For us it is a vocation rather than a simple profession.
But as we too often rest on the value of our information alone, other media industries are breaking loose of their dogma and reinventing how they tell their stories. Hollywood, Madison Avenue and even Tin Pan Alley have thoroughly broadened their approach to storytelling in the entertainment and advertising industries. They, like those Latin pentecostal churches, are much more fleet of foot and open to what their publics are looking for in the 21st century than we in journalism might be.
If journalists are the clerics of their religion, then they are like the Catholic priests you find today standing at the altar of a 300-year-old Latin American cathedral, preaching to a congregation of five. And those five congregants are all old and will die sooner than later.
But in the suburb not far away is the Hollywood Megachurch which, despite its own problems, has figured out how to reach people in ways they can use: a more convenient location, effusive passion and direct dealing with the issues that concern the congregation. They embrace and perfect the use of new technologies with early-adopter fervor, and as a result their multiplex pews are full to bursting.
A few blocks away the Madison Avenue Evangelical Church has learned how to send out its evangelists and better grab the attention of potential converts. And they are reeling in the young and cynical with surprising and innovative new messages preached in surprising places.
And over on Tin Pan Alley the old-line pentecostal temple, after years of losing its congregation to free and easy online gospels, is figuring out how to compel people back with a more tailored, interesting and varietal outreach, and lower tithing.
Back downtown at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Information, our news priest is standing there wondering why nobody is paying attention anymore and telling anyone who walks in that they will go to hell if they don’t show up every Sunday.
All hope is not lost, however.
There is a real priest I photographed in São Paulo, Brazil, on that extended documentary a few years ago. Padre Marcelo Rossi is a former aerobics instructor turned Catholic priest who brought not only a youthful and effusive passion to his work, but he learned quickly — like his counterparts at the other churches — to use any medium available to spread his message, particularly ones that land straight in the path of his young target public.
From early in his career Padre Marcelo was doing radio shows and TV broadcasts, and releasing CDs and videos. He has acted in movies and his multiple Twitter feeds have more than 100,000 followers. At the time I covered him he attracted up to 10,000 people to weekday morning masses, many of whom were school kids who had cut class to go to church. His new sanctuary can hold 100,000.
That’s what we need in journalism. Like Padre Marcelo who changed nothing of the ritual, message or ethics of the Catholic religion but is drawing the crowd, we in journalism don’t need to sacrifice our standards at all. We simply need to stop waiting around the Cathedral for the congregation to show up on our bossy old terms and reach out to the public on its terms. We need to use the media people are paying attention to now and leave our message in the paths they already travel.
In an old religion like journalism, adaptation to different circumstances can be hard for true believers to take. But like the Catholics of Brazil, losing congregations to more fleet-footed houses of worship, we need to stop insisting on certain patterns of message delivery and look for ways to get our message out in more compelling ways.
There are certainly thinkers in journalism who are as creative as Padre Marcelo is in Brazil’s Catholic Church. They are hard at work like he is to reach out to people on terms that draw them to the story he feels is so important. But many of us journalists, true believers that we are, can’t fathom the massive change under our feet. All we seem to muster is an argument that our information is important to the functioning of the democracy, and you should read it like a good citizen and pay for your newspaper to fund it.
I, too, believe our information is critical and will save you from things like climate change hellfire and political damnation. But journalism suffers from what pressthinker Jay Rosen argues is a “wicked problem.” That means there is no one clear answer, and from the varying perspectives of all interested parties, the problem looks very different. Arguing for its value alone and waiting around for the public to come to us is about as valuable as the “come every Sunday or you’ll go to hell” argument offered from altars around the world on major holidays. However, very creative thinking and borrowing sensible ideas from the media industries across town is a start on shoring up the foundation of this grand old journalism cathedral.
“Priests aren’t showmen,” Archbishop Odilo Scherer of São Paulo once said in a clear reference to Padre Marcelo. “The Mass is not to be transformed into a show.”
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.
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.
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.
- 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.