Category Archives: What is Transmedia Storytelling?

An Emerging Media Design and Development Sampler

Center for EMDD

The Creative Projects lab at the Center for Emerging Media Design and Development at Ball State University.

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.

Design Thinking — November 29, 2017, 1:00 PM EST

Dr. Jennifer Palilonis

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.

Transmedia Storytelling  — December 13, 2017, 1:00 PM EST

Dr. Kevin Moloney

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.

User Experience Testing — December 20, 2017, 1:00 PM EST

Megan McNames, Director of User Experience at Emplify.

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.


Multimedia, Crossmedia, Transmedia… What’s in a name?

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 77cok002news 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.

Breaking News as Native Transmedia Journalism

As many as twenty bullet holes riddle the entryway of the New Life church in Colorado Springs, Monday, Dec. 10, 2007, where a day earlier a gunman entered the building. Two are dead in addition to the gunman and another two are injured in the second shooting to hit a Colorado religious organization in a day. The gunman in the Colorado Springs shooting was killed by a church security guard. Two are dead in a possibly related shootings at a dormitory for missionaries in Arvada, Colo., a suburb of Denver.

As many as twenty bullet holes riddle the entryway of the New Life church in Colorado Springs, Monday, Dec. 10, 2007, where a day earlier a gunman entered the building. Two are dead in addition to the gunman and another two are injured in the second shooting to hit a Colorado religious organization in a day. The gunman in the Colorado Springs shooting was killed by a church security guard. Two are dead in a possibly related shootings at a dormitory for missionaries in Arvada, Colo., a suburb of Denver. (Kevin Moloney for the New York Times)

Anyone who follows any news in the 21st-century mediascape has experienced this native 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 an emergent 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 in 499 Words

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.

Media Forms

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.

Media Channels

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.


Transmedia Journalism as a Post-Digital Narrative

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


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: