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Transmedia Storytelling
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© Kevin Moloney

“The illusion that times that were are better than those that are, has probably pervaded all ages.”  — Horace Greeley

Change is a principal subject in journalism. Journalists like me have always been eager to cover the revolution or institutional collapse that may result in a completely new world. Subjects like the Civil Rights Movement or the fall of the Soviet Bloc left the public on the edge of its seats wondering how the world would change. But as the second decade of the 21st century begins, we find ourselves covering not only the revolutions of the outside world, but also the institutional collapse of our own profession. We are on the edge of our own seats. The profession of journalism I grew up with and have worked in for more than 20 years is confronting a public that is rapidly dispersing through a crowd of content providers. They range from legacy media outlets to niches of special interest. The public is seeking customized, self-filtered news and a part in the journalism conversation. Journalists are scrambling for new ideas to meet these challenges.

Facing similar audience defections, the entertainment and advertising media are turning toward an emerging storytelling technique that uses the advantages of new media, legacy media, audience participation and investigative curiosity to more deeply engage that audience and find them where in the mediascape they dwell. Practitioners and academics call this relatively new method “transmedia storytelling” as fans of an entertainment franchise find the story not just in one medium — cinema, for example — but across an array of professional- and amateur-created content in analog and electronic media. When done well, this technique has helped bring film and television franchises enduring involvement and commitment from their fans.

By adapting the methods of transmedia storytelling to the goals and ethics of journalism, can journalists — either those associated with big legacy media companies, or a small, collaborative group of committed individuals — better engage their publics, offer deeper and more valuable participation and interaction, deliver complex stories with deeper context and find the public in a dispersed, diverse and dilettante mediascape?

Transmedia Storytelling

In 2003 scholar Henry Jenkins defined in MIT’s Technology Review what he calls “transmedia storytelling” in which entertainment media companies design a franchise to be delivered across multiple channels in ways that inspire the viewer to actively engage in the story. Those viewers sleuth out answers to clues and questions, play related games, and create their own media that enriches the experience. Jenkins explained fully in his book Convergence Culture:

A transmedia story unfolds across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole. In the ideal form of transmedia storytelling, each medium does what it does best — so that a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels, and comics; its world might be explored through game play or experienced as an amusement park attraction. Each franchise entry needs to be self-contained so you don’t need to have seen the film to enjoy the game, and vice versa.

Religious ritual and symbolism is one of many historic transmedia storytelling devices. © Kevin Moloney

Jenkins also notes that transmedia storytelling is not new; he takes his readers back to the Middle Ages and relates how the Christian story was told to a largely illiterate public. “Unless you were literate, Jesus was not rooted in a book but was something you encountered on multiple levels in your culture.” Stained glass windows, statues and religious art line the walls and altars of historic religious structures around the world echoing how each origin story was told across media to reach its public in every way possible. Throughout history our most compelling and enduring stories have been told using every means available.

But he finds a model for transmedia storytelling design in The Matrix science fiction franchise. Watched alone, the films were somewhat mysterious and vague, with what seemed key pieces of the story missing or only hinted at. Questions the stories raised were left unanswered. For a viewer like me, watching a film with mild interest, it simply seemed like an inventive and nontraditional story told without the usual heavy hand of Hollywood which often demands complete story resolution. But for the passionate fan, the mysteries were an invitation to engage and explore, to hunt for answers across a mediascape of games, animated shorts and comics. Fans drill into the material for answers. “The sheer abundance of allusions makes it nearly impossible for any given consumer to master the franchise totally,” Jenkins notes.

Using a vast landscape of media makes for a synergistic story as well, where as Jenkins says, “the whole is worth more than the sum of the parts.” The transmedia implementation was planned from the beginning of The Matrix franchise. Producer Joel Silver said about the creators’ process in an extra feature on the production DVD of The Animatrix animated shorts, “I remember on the plane ride back (from Japan) Larry (Wachowski) sat down with a yellow pad and kinda mapped out this scheme we would do where we would have this movie, and these video games and these animated stories, and they would all interact together.” In 2009, James Cameron’s Avatar put new use to the techniques of The Matrix. The Avatar experience included games, books, comics and user-generated content in addition to the blockbuster 3-D movie.

As the Wachowskis’ method has spread, so has analysis of and variation on Jenkins’ coinage. The terms “cross-media,” “deep media” and “distributed phenomena” all refer back to the idea of telling a story through multiple media in an expansive, rather than repetitive, way. And though it had been more than a decade since the Wachowski brothers sent us on their Matrix adventure, the Producers Guild of America in 2010 sanctioned the film credit of “Transmedia Producer.”

In early 2011, Wired magazine contributing editor Frank Rose released a new book, The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories. His prepublication notes summed up the book’s topic:

This isn’t the first time the way we tell stories has changed. Every major advance in communications has given birth to a new form of narrative: the printing press and moveable type led to the emergence of the novel in the 17th and 18th centuries; the motion picture camera, after a long period of experimentation, gave rise to movies; television created the sitcom. The Internet, like all these technologies in their earliest days, was at first used mainly as a vehicle for retransmitting familiar formats. For all the talk of ‘new media,’ it served as little more than a new delivery mechanism for old media, from newspapers to music to TV shows. And as disruptive as that has been to media businesses, its impact on media itself is only beginning to be felt. Stories are becoming games, and games are becoming stories. Boundaries that once seemed clear — between storyteller and audience, content and marketing, illusion and reality — are starting to blur. The Art of Immersion shows how this is happening and why, and what it means for our future.

Rose’s book interviews the players in this new world of non-linear and immersive storytelling form, and provides a practical, real-world understanding of the structures of a transmedia story and the history of the form.

Transmedia Journalism?

If Hollywood has implemented transmedia storytelling for fictional story lines, then how can it be ported to the very structured, complete and directed world of journalism? Daily journalism, with its time-constrained brevity, is not really a viable option. Transmedia must be designed carefully and developed with a lengthy lead time to be effective. From conception to delivery, a Hollywood franchise takes years to launch. But also deeply embedded in the journalism tradition is the long-term investigation or the extended documentary. Coverage of a complex and ongoing issue — immigration, the aftermath of war, social struggle — lends itself perfectly to a considered approach and complex delivery.

Complex issues, with multiple personal perspectives and possible storylines lend themselves well to a transmedia approach. © Kevin Moloney

An “incomplete” story, on the lines of the film segments of The Matrix, is also anathema to the ethical principles of journalism. But as any reporter will tell you, a news story generally ends where the reporter and editor decided to stop. There is always more that could be told, more perspectives on a complex or compelling topic, and as many more possible ways of telling the story as there are media on which to tell one. Each piece of a transmedia reportage can be as complete as a news story has always been but still lead to other pieces that add depth and perspective for a curious public.

Though journalism has implemented versions of all the aspects of transmedia storytelling in isolated or incomplete cases, it does not seem to have sewn them together into a form as complete nor effective as what Hollywood has done. Journalism has focused instead on ideas of convergence of media and multimedia delivery of stories, mostly on the Web. Convergence journalism has generally resulted in repurposing one version of a story for Web, print and broadcast without much tailoring of the story to fit the medium. The same story is told through different channels. Multimedia has typically meant mixing text, audio, video, photography and often info-graphics into one Web story that attracts the same readers the site would have before. Transmedia journalism would use each individual medium’s strengths to tell a complete piece of a complex and nuanced story, and reach publics that a news-gathering group or organization might not have otherwise found with a single form.

With a dispersed audience, journalism — in either the legacy media or new media — has a harder time fulfilling its “Fourth Estate” role of informing the voting public about issues facing the democracy and inspiring debate about them. Journalists have always hoped to be not only educational, but also powerfully resonant and interesting to their public. Through transmedia storytelling journalists can leverage the power of new- and old-media tools and interpersonal networks to better engage the public.

By Keith Simmons, USA TODAY

What is to Come Here

Over the coming weeks I will examine the origins of transmedia storytelling, the structure of the story across multiple platforms and how this technique might be implemented in a journalism or documentary context. Each section will present examples and a brief discussion of their efficacy, and I hope you might add to the conversation with more examples.

What is Transmedia Storytelling?

Here I will look into the history of what has recently been labeled transmedia storytelling and will evaluate Henry Jenkins’ Seven Principles of Transmedia Storytelling. These principles have been adopted by academics, authors and transmedia producers as a structural framework. They describe what a transmedia story should accomplish and how it attracts and engages readers.

Once attracted, those readers form networks within which they share, recreate, repurpose and redistribute stories. Though these networks and the use of intellectual property within them continues to be a sore point for many content creators, they can also be a powerful tool to engage the public and distribute the story. This piece will also look at the role of personal networks and how transmedia entertainment franchises benefit from them.

As much as digital delivery has changed in the last decade how the entertainment media has worked, gaming has altered our view of storytelling. Transmedia storytelling is transmodal, taking advantage of both narrative elements that lead the reader step by step through an unfolding story and gaming elements that engage the reader’s taste for seeking answers. This chapter will examine both narrative and games as storytelling devices.

Many transmedia entertainment franchises have emerged since the Wachowski brothers designed and built the world of The Matrix, and it was not the first franchise to unfold in this manner. But thanks to close examination it is the type species of transmedia entertainment. The chapter will look into this franchise and others, how they were designed and how they have unfolded since their debuts.

Where Journalism has Gone Before

What has changed irrevocably in the world of journalism? This piece will start with a look at the 20th-century’s one-to-many model of news delivery, where it was valuable and where it falls short. Among the movements created to change that perspective was the Public Journalism movement driven partially by New York University’s Jay Rosen. This chapter will look at why, according to Rosen and his detractors, it failed to catch on and what might be repurposed in the digital journalism world.

Here I will also examine in greater depth what the idea of convergence has meant in legacy journalism. How do those ideas differ from what entertainment media has begun to use media convergence to its advantage? How has journalism’s often dogmatic attachment to tradition slowed its ability to adapt to a changing media environment?

What Transmedia Journalism Might Look Like

Through the turmoil of journalism industry change, many experiments — some successful, others forgotten — have embraced ideas that might be described as transmedia storytelling. I will look at some examples that have worked in order to show that transmedia storytelling is possible in a journalism or documentary context. I will also ask transmedia scholars and practitioners where differences might lie between its use in the journalism and entertainment media. How can these examples be assembled into an intentional transmedia journalism project?

Next page: What is Transmedia Storytelling?

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