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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.

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Agency, Game and Transmedia Story

© Kevin Moloney

“Story” has been with us for as long as we have been communicating. We tell stories to better understand how we can or should move through life. Existentialists such as Paul Ricour and Peter Brooks argue that an act of narration allows us to deal with time, destiny and mortality, and to create identities.  Narrative allows us to situate ourselves in the world.

But as narratives are a metaphor for our own lives, games are practice for it. “Games traditionally offer safe practice in areas that do have practical value,” notes cyberdrama theorist Janet Murray in Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. “Lion cubs roughhouse with one another in order to grow to be predators. Small children play hide and seek, a good way of training hunters, and ring-around-a-rosy, a good way of practicing cooperation and coordinated behaviors. Older children in our society are understandably drawn to pitting themselves against machines.” And contest stories are as old as Odysseus. Murray places the contest as “one of the most pervasive organizing principles of human intelligence.” These dramas compel us through stories from MacBeth to Mortal Kombat. If the former is the drama told, the latter is the drama happening.

In a game the drama happens to us through “agency,” the pleasurable aspect of play in which the players actions have meaningful consequences in the game. We act, the game responds, the story changes. A novel asks us to set aside our agency, our right to make choices argues Ken Perlin. Instead the agency of the protagonist takes over and we are swept up in his or her struggles. We cannot interfere as we hitch ourselves to them for a ride. “By way of contrast, look at games,” he notes. “A game does not force us to relinquish our agency. In fact, the game depends on it. When you play Tomb Raider you don’t actually think of Lara Croft as a person the same way, say, you think of Harry Potter as a person… While you’re actually playing the game, the very effectiveness of the experience depends on you becoming Lara Croft… Every choice she makes, whether to shoot, to leap, to run, to change weapons, is your choice.”

Game play can also deepen immersion. Murray pointed to the early text-based Zork computer game to demonstrate the difference your presence in the story makes. In the game you enter a dungeon through a trapdoor. It is slammed behind you, and, She says, “The moment is startling and immediate, like firing a prop gun on the stage of a theater. You are not just reading about an event that occurred in the past; the event is happening now, and unlike the action on the stage of a theater, it is happening to you.”

In an effective transmedia franchise the keystone element may be a narrative story told through film or in a novel, in which a fully drawn character acts without our influence. But games offer an important expansion of the world in which that story unfolds. Through a game we can step into that world and exercise our agency to create our own side story or experience the actions of the hero first hand. We can feel the tension as we approach the Death Star’s exhaust port and the elation of a good shot that wins the battle.

The role games play in a transmedia story is examined more on the Lure of Games and Power of Networks page linked here, under Contexts at the top of the site, or near the top of the right sidebar. Stay tuned for posts on how games can work in a transmedia journalism story.


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.


World Building

© Kevin Moloney

In his book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, media studies scholar Henry Jenkins identified the core idea of transmedia storytelling: “More and more, storytelling has become the art of world building, as artists create compelling environments that cannot be fully explored or exhausted within a single work or even a single medium.” An experienced screenwriter told him:

When I first started, you would pitch a story because without a good story, you really didn’t have a film. Later, once sequels started to take off, you pitched a character because a good character could support multiple stories. And now, you pitch a world because a world can support multiple characters and multiple stories across multiple media.

But what could world building have do with journalism? It’s easy to imagine a Hollywood screenwriter creating an entire fictional world (or galaxy). But in journalism we refudiate invented things. The beauty of journalism, however, is that we don’t need to create stories, characters or worlds. The real world is our transmedia world and it is already filled with cultures, characters and stories to be written and produced, connected to each other and delivered through multiple media channels.

© Kevin Moloney

Transmedia storytelling in entertainment, though years old, is still new enough that definitions are troublesome. Academics examine past works to distill principles and definitions, and practitioners define it more in terms of what they would like it to do and where they think it ought to go. In the past year some debates erupted over how the technique should be defined.

I am going to stick largely to the definitions made by Henry Jenkins, who popularized the term and continues to describe it at length. In answer to the debates, Jenkins recently posted some further reflections on transmedia storytelling on his blog. These reflections not only examine the terms of the debate, but help to put further flesh on the idea. It’s a valuable read.

Today I’ve added a new context page “What is Transmedia Storytelling,” where you can find a more detailed and example-filled look into where transmedia comes from and what social and economic changes have fueled it. Find it linked here, at the top of the blog and on the right column of the page. Watch for much more there in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, here’s a nicely done little “Transmedia 101” video by One 3 Productions:


Welcome

Social Media. © Kevin Moloney

If you are here, reading this, you know that journalism is having some trouble. Not only is the economic model that used to pay for it sinking fast, but journalists are having a harder time reaching the public with their work in a very diverse and dispersed mediascape. This blog and my ongoing research is mostly about the latter problem, though all of journalism’s woes are inextricably linked. Rather than waiting for the public to come to us for the news, we need to send our work down every conceivable avenue to find the public — new publics too — and win their engagement and loyalty. We need to improve the way we tell stories.

That is where the title of this blog comes in. “Transmedia” is one of the top buzzwords of the past two years in the entertainment and advertising industries. It is proving to be extremely effective in reaching and engaging the public in those two realms, and there is much about it that we can put to use in telling the informative and factual stories journalists want to tell. Hollywood and Madison Avenue are using transmedia techniques to win more fans and engage them more deeply. That’s something we should want too.

Transmedia storytelling is not just convergence or multimedia by a new name. It’s also not an entity solely of the digital age. The Web is an excellent tool for much of it, but a transmedia story doesn’t unfold there or in any other single medium alone. It can, however, use any aspect of any media from the cave painting to the latest killer app.

Transmedia storytelling and the transmedia journalism I propose tells stories across an array of media — analog, digital and even brick-and-mortar — in an expansive rather than repetitive way. That would mean telling a complex story not only across the usual print, Web and broadcast media, but possibly through books, games, immersive experiences, graphic nonfiction (comics), gallery walls, museum installations, public lectures, public interaction and authorship, or any other medium appropriate to the story. It also means not simply re-editing a story for repetition among those media.

In entertainment it looks (briefly) like this:

Star Wars did it largely by accident. Starting with one film in 1977, the story proved so compelling and engaging that it exploded across the mediascape from films to comics, books, games, toys, fan fiction and video, and any other medium you can think of. Inspired by this, creators of The Matrix franchise in the late 90s designed a similar experience from the start, planning how their story would unfold not only on the screen, but continue through all those other media and more. Since the Matrix tale began more than a decade ago, other entertainment franchises, like the hugely successful Lost TV series, have successfully used transmedia storytelling design to rivet fans and put them to work finding, sharing and shaping stories.

As this blog unfurls I will describe what transmedia storytelling is, where it comes from and how we can use it within the goals and ethics of journalism. It will come in both appetizer- and entree-sized chunks, but if you’re a big eater you can download the full academic paper. You’ll also see links under The Big Idea at right to all the pieces of important context and background on transmedia storytelling and transmedia journalism as they are published. Subscribe to the feed or the related tweets to know when there’s something new here.

This blog will also be a hub for my ongoing research on the subject, and a place to air my and your related discoveries about it. Post links to interesting examples of transmedia stories from any industry, and send observations and suggestions my way. I’d love to hear them.

This post is the barest scratch of the surface of what will come here. Look ahead for deeper explanations of what transmedia storytelling looks like in the entertainment media — with many linked examples — places where journalism has gone before, and what transmedia journalism might look like — also with many linked examples. To start a deeper exploration go to the Contexts page, linked here, at top and at right.

The journalism profession is not short on experimentation with new ideas, new technologies and new storytelling methods. But they seem more like attempts to keep the publics they used to have than to find and engage new ones. I believe by adopting the techniques of transmedia storytelling, we can reach out to new readers, viewers, listeners and interactors in the media spaces where they already are, and engage them more deeply in complex real-world stories. It could certainly be easier than reviving our old model of expecting them to come to us.