Building Transmedia Journalism

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Previous Page: Transmedia Journalism Principles
Fans? | How do we assemble the puzzle?
What kinds of stories lend themselves best to transmedia?
Who will produce transmedia journalism?
Why is this still journalism?
What is left to do?

Media at the MCA Denver. © Kevin Moloney, 2010

If you know yourself you are doomed.” — Alexey Brodovitch


The communication model that shapes all media has irrevocably changed. Like it or not, journalists and media organizations work in a many-to-many, networked information economy. Legacy news media are no longer the sole source of news for the public, and that public is dispersing through a wide and varied mediascape. There the public has the ability to create news of their own, share news from others and interact with the publishers or with their own friends and followers about that news. Where a news organization could once depend on a somewhat captive audience, they must now attract a willing — if not eager — one. And journalism is not alone in this situation. Entertainment, advertising and music media face the same issues of audience flight and competition from amateur creators. Their business models have been upended as sharply as journalism’s. In all of these cases, for amateur and professional, content creators must no longer wait for the public to come to them. They must seek out the public where it has gone, connect with it on its own terms and give it a reason to pay attention. Content creators must use a medium in a way that exercises that medium’s strengths rather than seeing it as simply another hole into which they can pound the old peg. More than a decade ago some in the entertainment media seized this idea despite discomfort and misunderstanding from the Hollywood establishment. The Wachowski brothers and others used pre-existing media and storytelling techniques to find fans wherever they could be found.

© Kevin Moloney, 2007


But can journalism have fans? That word brings shudders to many a hard-boiled old journalist like me. We imagine ourselves as working for the improvement of society, not solely to please its members. We aim to report good and bad, for better or for worse, and the public must understand that we do it because it’s true. We feel our publics should look to us for information first, pleasure second — a reverse of how the entertainment industry might feel about its fans. But that point of view fit a period where our audiences were captive. In the 20th century the public was reliant on professionals for news, with few other options. Now the options are many and the communication no longer one-way. To reach the public with a story we journalists see as important or compelling means that we must find the public where it already dwells. There we must engage readers so that they are more likely to pay attention to the story, share it, interact with it, contribute to it and understand its complexities. Ideally, like the fans of Lost, they may be so engaged that they take the story into their lives and seek out more informational depth on their own. As many smart entertainment franchises haven proven, journalism can have fans and can do that with no surrender of ethical principles, no pandering to tastes and without dumbing down the story. I argue that our dumbing down of content contributes to audience loss. So where do we start?

How do we assemble the puzzle?

Cooperative group art in creation at the Meow Wolf Gallery in Santa Fe, N.M. © Kevin Moloney, 2010

Few inventions are simply pulled from the ether. New creations generally arise from raw materials at hand or the scavenged parts of something else. They are puzzle pieces rearranged and combined to form something new. Hollywood, Madison Avenue and Tin Pan Alley have rearranged their puzzles in reaction to the new networked media environment to create transmedia storytelling for their media. In the last section I described all of the pieces we have at hand to build a transmedia approach to journalism. By reassembling these pieces the way the creators of The Matrix, Lost, and other transmedia entertainment stories have over the past dozen years, journalists too can recreate the way they deliver complex stories.

First, a transmedia approach to journalism would require that it be designed as transmedia from the start. Editors must consider what media are available to them and how the individual strengths of those media can be used to the story’s advantage. I do not argue that every story should have a transmedia approach, nor should every story attempt to use every possible transmedia principle or medium in its creation. Many stories are brief, or straightforward, or — as we used to say on one staff — “a quick hit.” But even those quick or simple stories lend themselves best to one medium or another. Already in the mainstream of journalism we are seeing larger newspapers cover a story exclusively in video for their Web site if the story lends itself best to that approach. This is a start on the small scale, but as the complexity, social relevance or ongoing nature of a story increases, so should the planning behind delivery. What elements best fit print, video, audio, games, columns or blogs? How will those pieces be delivered to make best advantage of their form?

© Kevin Moloney, 2007

“Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace” was perhaps the closest to transmedia journalism I have found, but it is still only a multimedia piece. It was an entity solely of the New York Times Web site. Though it was drillable, spreadable and interactive, it was available only to readers of that Web site. It depended on the public to find it rather that the editors building it to find new publics. A transmedia piece would use video in native spaces, such as cable or public TV channels if available, or YouTube and Vimeo channels where more than established readers might find it. Audio might be used in cooperation with local public broadcasting stations to find car-bound commuters. Games — most applicable to explain a newsworthy system — would exist beyond the news organization’s own Web site so they might be found by those gamers who might surf some other news sites. Blogs should act like blogs, encouraging interaction between commenter and author, and link themselves through the Web’s blog networks in addition to a legacy media site. If long-lived and compelling enough, the story could expand to printed and electronic books or brick-and-mortar gallery spaces with tangible, physical artifacts of the story on view with images, video, audio and even lectures designed specifically for those spaces. Most importantly, material in these media would not simply repeat the story in another form the way most Web multimedia stories now do. We should hope our publics will want to seek out new deliveries of a story for the new and complementary information they could provide. This, too, asks for new thinking from legacy media. By design, few news sites encourage the reader to leave. Much as big-box superstores design their spaces to keep shoppers wandering, or the typewriter keyboard was designed to slow down touch typists, news sites only link internally. The New York Times, for example built its own competitor to Wikipedia — Times Topicsso contextual info would be found from among the Times’ own reporting. But, as Jeff Jarvis has said, “the better job you do at sending people away, the more they come back.” In the networked information economy, they will go away on their own and find information in myriad places. Locking them in will not make them fans. As Google has proved, helping them find what they are looking for will.

The 1883 death sentence of convicted canibal Alferd Packer on display in the courthouse where it was written. © Kevin Moloney, 2004

And of economics? If we encourage our publics to leave our pages, our airtime or our Web sites in pursuit of information, or with encouragement to interact with and spread our stories, how will we keep eyes on our ads and pay our bills? This is not a study of economic models (yet, at least), and I do not pretend to have answers for how journalism will be as profitable as it once was. However, as Trent Reznor’s working model of financial success in the digital economy shows, connecting with fans and giving them a reason to buy equals financial success. Reznor, who on the heels of his own transmedia experimentation, left his long-time record label and is succeeding admirably on his own using this very model. If your fans (or your publics or readers if you prefer) connect with you, they will stick with you, watch for what you produce and spread your stories the same way they spread Reznor’s.

What kinds of stories best lend themselves to transmedia?

As mentioned before, much of the boilerplate of daily journalism is the daily story of an occurrence the day before — a crime, an accident or disaster, a government meeting. These stories by themselves unfold too quickly and are reported on too tight a deadline to become transmedia stories on a large scale. However, they do form the context and drillable added information of a larger project that might report on the long-term effects of a disaster such as Joplin, Missouri’s tornadoes of 2011, or of a complex crime wave, or an investigation into alleged government corruption or mismanagement.

A community pump in Burkina Faso built with individual donations to the donors were led to believe went to specific children in their membership materials. © Kevin Moloney, 1998

But journalism is about far more than the quick-hit daily stories. Long-term investigative project stories and series stories lend themselves very well to a transmedia approach. Not only do they have longer production schedules for the reporting alone, but they also involve much planning. One such series that has regularly come to mind as I have thought about this is a series of stories produced by the Chicago Tribune in the late 1990s. Curious about the efficacy of international child aid organizations like The Christian Children’s Fund, Save the Children and others — many remember television ads (and lampoons of them on In Living Color and South Park) featuring actress Sally Struthers introducing young Third-World children and noting that only seventy cents would feed the child for a day. Tribune staff writers sponsored children through several organizations for years in advance of the investigation, then fanned out to find those children and report how the money was used. The result showed mixed behaviors from the organizations and resulted in some promised reforms to better match the advertising. The series ran in print, was published on the Tribune’s early Web site and the reporters were interviewed on WGN television and radio. But despite the multiple media, the stories were merely advertisements and teases for the print stories.

Subjects like this are complex. They have compelling characters and intricate systems to model, issues requiring detailed examination, and relate to actions of the public. They also have adequate lead time to produce before publication. This story is naturally spreadable as its subject has touched the lives of the public through those ubiquitous and memorable late-night TV spots. Drillability exists already in prior coverage of the subject, in the lampoons and Web videos available and in conversations among the public, but drillability could also be encouraged through on- and off-site linking to contextual stories and information such as tax records for the charities under investigation and their ties to entertainment and political personalities. The story was already printed in serial form as the investigation unfolded, charity by charity. It involves fascinating characters in the sponsored and interviewed children who could be allowed to report their own stories or make their own pictures or audio to share their personal experience. The same could be done with the various organizations’ field workers who — with careful editorial oversight to avoid excessive spin — could illustrate the difficulties on the ground and how different they may be from public perception.

Hurricane Katrina: Tempest in the Crescent City game. Click to play.

Immersive journalism pieces, if technology and ease of public use allow, could very viscerally illustrate the circumstances of life in the places where these agencies work, and engaging games could be built to play the complexities of non-governmental organization funding, aid distribution or fundraising. Games could even feature the opposing goal of pirating or profiting from international aid. The stories could be written for print and Web as they were before, but also as video and audio produced not as teasers but as functional stand-alone TV and radio pieces that add new information, different perspectives and different qualities suited for their medium. When done well, these stories naturally tease for each other, as a compelled reader, viewer or listener will want to seek more information. Through a radio partnership, audio vignettes of some of the subjects could be aired to tell small pieces of the overall story. Television and Web video might pick up another piece of the larger issue most suited to video’s talent for illustrating time and motion. The news organization or group of independents producing the work could reach further by forming partnerships with museums and other display spaces for physical story artifacts. The story itself is about the extractability provided by these aid organizations: Send your monthly fee and receive in return letters from your sponsored child. Those letters could be displayed in original form along with images of — or made by — subject children and artifacts from the cultures in which they live. Physical presence of artifacts can be very emotionally immersive, as anyone seeing John Kennedy’s limousine in person at the Henry Ford Museum will attest. Reporters and editors could offer public lectures on the subject, making the experience by the public of the story more personal. And extractability and public action are also native to this story, with a compelled public more likely to support the better aid groups described in the investigation and pressure those requiring reform. These are merely a few of the myriad possible ways the various principles of transmedia could be applied to this investigative piece. As the techniques evolve, so will the quality of transmedia storytelling.

Upstart Mania TV — Fresh graduates producing broadcasts from an old school bus in an industrial park. © Kevin Moloney, 2006

Who will produce transmedia journalism?

In 1997 and 1998 when the Tribune produced its sponsorship organization series the production time and costs were high. Multiple foreign correspondents were dispatched to find sponsored children in remote locations on several continents. To produce the story in transmedia form would add not only the extra work for reporting through other media — videographers, audio reporters and producers — but also more producers at the home office. Naturally, this scale of story would be produce most efficiently by a large legacy news organization as the Tribune was in the late 90s.

Tomas van Houtryve's 21st-century communism work, in book form. Click for details. © Tomas van Houtryve

But producing an investigation of this kind — even for transmedia — does not require that scale of organization. Single journalists have produce enormous and complex work on their own for centuries, of which Tomas van Houtryve, mentioned previously for his multi-year project on 21st-century communism, shows. A transmedia production could theoretically be produced by a single person devoting much time and an array of skills to the task. However a one-man-band approach has its limits. I argue as we approach an age in which I predict most journalism will be produced on a freelance basis, that a small group of specialists could easily produce deep, detailed and sizable transmedia journalism pieces. Such a group would ideally have people of varying skills and areas of expertise to produce elements of the story to professional standards. The entirety of the Tribune’s child sponsorship organization series was created by a handful of reporters and editors. Independent and committed storytellers of all levels of professional experience have long produced journalism outside the legacy media’s infrastructure as pamphleteers, documentary filmmakers and photographers, and nonfiction writers.

Funding for such work has revolutionized in recent years as crowd funding and other models of personal support of journalism have bloomed. Systems like the aforementioned, and provide journalists with a method of public funding for projects. And once produced, I argue, a good journalism package will have monetary value to both legacy and new media. Cooperatives like LUCEO Images have a proven track record of profitability from group projects.

Why is this still journalism?

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, one of the source dictionaries approved by the professional Associated Press Style standard, has six definitions for journalism. They largely all boil down to very simple sentences to describe what most journalists see as a complex social entity. The first reads: “the collection and editing of news for publication through the media.” There is nothing in any of the definitions that states nor implies that journalism is the product of a certain kind of person, a defined type of organization, nor the bearer of a license. By this definition anyone can be a journalist regardless of prior training or affiliation with legacy media. Neither does it prescribe a style of writing, production or delivery, nor mandate that journalism be a one-way lecture instead of a conversation. Journalism is the reporting of factual stories, a documenting of the real world and a providing of valuable or interesting information. Transmedia journalism is no break with any of these definitions.

My own journalism ethics are rather conservative. After teaching journalism for 32 semesters, I have boiled all journalism ethics down to two principles: Do not deceive the public and do not misrepresent the subject. All else is a restatement of one of those principles or simply a standard of practice, and standards of practice have changed and evolved throughout journalism’s history. Journalism and its varied practitioners have a strong sense of ethical duty, to report factually and fairly, and make a best effort to examine the most complete story. Transmedia journalism changes neither of those nor any other core principles. When done well, it would only accomplish those goals better.

Interview. © Kevin Moloney

This is an effort to better fulfill what I see as a professional journalistic obligation: to tell the most complete story possible. For example, by providing drillable stories we encourage the reader to find more complete contextual information and the inevitable multiple perspectives on any story. We encourage a more informed electorate. By reporting for diverse and personal viewpoints our stories become more complete and compelling, for a personal view is always more engaging. As journalists our work can easily keep balance in those perspectives so minority views will have proportional representation. By making our work more immersive and providing ways for our publics to take our stories into their personal lives and act on them, we better achieve our nearly universal goal of fostering positive social change. Long-time journalism traditions, standards and ethics brought to bear on any style of production will only make it more sound. We are simply storytellers. What separates us from fiction writers is a respect for the facts and a standard for solid research and fact checking. Our stories have for centuries changed lives, checked governments, illustrated foreign lands and concepts and humanized people. We have also failed at all of the above throughout our history. Transmedia journalism is simply storytelling across many media channels for sake of finding more and newer publics. It will be no exception to our long and honored tradition.

What is left to do?

This work has aimed at demonstrating the potential value of transmedia storytelling to journalism. Many questions remain as to how best to implement the various facets of transmedia storytelling in the production and distribution of news. For example, we need to explore the scalability of transmedia journalism: How small of a cooperative group could produce it? How long would it take? Would it require the resources of a New York Times or a Chicago Tribune? How will it be received and used by the public?

As part of my ongoing research into the possibility of transmedia journalism I hope to assemble that small cooperative group of working journalists with expertise in multiple media forms and delivery systems, and create a transmedia journalism piece as a proof of concept. This will not only answer most of the questions above, but also reveal many new and unexpected ones. This, like many large-scale journalism works, may be a multi-year process.

While so far this report is not about the economic models of journalism, it acknowledges the impact of economics on every aspect of producing good journalism work, whether under the employment of a legacy news organization or as a freelance independent. Further research into the economic factors and benefits of transmedia journalism could be done to understand how and where it fits financially. Is it possible to have effective transmedia journalism behind a pay wall like that inaugurated by the New York Times this year? Or does that preclude it from working? How would independents fund such work, and how would crowdfunding and other new media financial models contribute to the transmedia storytelling? What are unforeseen ethical questions must be addressed to stay within the standards of journalism?

© Kevin Moloney, 2008


“-30-,” or “###,” or “ENDIT” traditionally close a news story sent to editing. Every journalist knows that these marks simply denote the end of a draft, and never, truly, the end of a story. As poet D.W. Harding said, “The most important thing is not what the author, or any artist, had in mind to begin with but at what point he decided to stop.” I make those references because they illustrate one of my points: Transmedia journalism acknowledges and even embraces the fact that no story is ever complete. Reporters type those characters onto the screen when time has run out more often than they do when the story is completely told. A transmedia approach would help our stories continue to tell themselves through public engagement, subsequent investigation and public contribution.

When done well, transmedia journalism would distribute the narrative of real-world events across a variety of online, print and even brick-and-mortar media, and thereby engage the public in the media where it already circulates. Using these principles would allow the public to drill deeply into the context and complexity of stories that are told from multiple perspectives and, when appropriate, through the words of the subjects themselves. These cohesive stories could unfold over time to hold the attention of the public and draw them to immersive experiences where they enter a virtual or physical piece of the story. If accomplished well, their immersion into the story could inspire them to share that experience with their social networks online and off and inspire them to action. That action could be by interacting with the journalists and the public, by writing to a government representative or by carrying a picket sign.

The entertainment, advertising and music media are all facing the same challenges journalism is. As one answer to this problem these other media are implementing transmedia storytelling techniques at an ever faster rate and reaping the benefits of a loyal fan base for their work. To attract fans into their auditoriums, to the front of their stages and into the stores selling their goods, they are finding their publics where they have gone and letting them in on the creation of the story itself. They are telling stories that unfold across many platforms in ways native to those platforms. They are, as Trent Reznor’s simple model states, connecting with fans and giving them a reason to buy. By adopting transmedia storytelling techniques, journalists can also connect with fans and give them a reason to buy. Once connected those fans become better informed publics and the backbone of a functioning democracy.


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