Tag Archives: transmedia storytelling
I will be joining in a global, 24-hour live conversation on issues of design in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, sponsored by the department of design at Politecnico di Milano in Italy. My half-hour conversation with fellow transmedia designer, producer, educator, and researcher Mariana Ciancia will explore the idea of rigor in design and how that looks different for differing design tasks, how it evolves for the designer and for a mode of creative production.
The lineup for the whole 24 hours is impressive and full of unique and informative sessions. Check out the list and details on joining here.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: