Tag Archives: transmedia
In my new article I explore how the New York Times Company’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning work on subjects such as the impact of slavery on U.S. culture, the feudal economy of taxi medallions, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic illustrate transmedia storytelling in daily news.
Here’s the abstract:
This feature article identifies three types of transmedia storyworlds—native, emergent, and feral—in the daily journalism work of The New York Times Company (NYT). In doing so, this case study of the NYT reevaluates how a transmedia storyworld is conceptualized, clarifies the relationship between storyworld and reference world in documentary storytelling, and illustrates the evolving transmedia journalism work of this organization. Through analysis of the NYT’s 1619 Project, New York taxi medallion economy, and COVID-19 coverage, the author defines native, emergent, and feral transmedia stories and how they can be understood across media industries.
Today USC Annenburg’s International Journal of Communication published my “Proposing a Practical Media Taxonomy for Complex Media Production,” and it makes for a good reason to get back to posting here regularly (at least until my students catch up with me). The abstract:
This article proposes a taxonomy of media designed to clarify the production and critique of complex media publication. I examine the conflation of ideas described by the word media and review prior taxonomic categorizations of this fuzzy concept. Media is broken into layered categories of content, media form, and media channel based on the semiotic and technological roles in mediated communication and then is described as a flow of decisions made in the creation and publication of communicative products. Finally, this taxonomy is applied to clarify the different functions of multimedia, crossmedia, and transmedia storytelling.
In the coming weeks I’ll post a series of examples that help visualize and describe some of the concepts in the article. I’ll start off with interesting examples of the concept of media form, follow with media channel, then examples of multimedia, crossmedia and transmedia storytelling. Stay tuned for those, but in the meantime, you can read or download the article here:
This article also builds on the ideas in these previous posts:
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 news 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.
There are times when a constraint is fuel for the creative process. As a veteran photojournalist I know deeply how the need to tell an entire story within a small frame, by slicing a millisecond from the unstoppable flow of time can heighten my awareness, accelerate my storytelling skills and open the adrenalin valve. In journalism as a whole, constraints can lead to cleaner and more efficient stories.
But those constraints are largely a product of the mediascape of prior centuries. Classic journalism forms like the inverted pyramid structure, the ten-column-inch story or the 30-second broadcast news segment all came into being because space and time in legacy media was scarce and expensive. And those constraints have been in front of us for so long that they ceased to be just involuntary constraints and have become journalistic standards. Even as the cheap and plentiful Web has broken those restrictions, I have heard many veteran journalists argue that those classic forms are the only real journalism out there.
But what is journalism? I argue that it is simply telling a factual story reported by someone who was rigorous in his or her effort to eliminate assumptions and verify facts, and produced carefully for a concerned public. It isn’t defined by style, structure or medium. We now have virtually unlimited ways to tell a factual story and, in online media at least, an extremely low publishing cost. Stories that justify expansion are far less limited by the economics of the media.
The best journalism will always be efficient in its use of space and time. Daily coverage of boilerplate stories generally do not need expansive transmedia coverage to do their job well. They should stay concise and limited in the time they demand from the engaged public. But when major stories emerge that have complexity, nuance and deep connections to many other stories in our world, then transmedia storytelling is a valuable method.
Transmedia entertainment continues to grow. The transmedia-native SLiDE, an Australian Fox8 teen drama, unfolds on screen and expands through social media designed to give its teen fans a sense of ownership in the story. I was recently impressed by the transmedia worldbuilding efforts of the Ninjago toy series from Lego, in which a backstory of epic style was built for those funny little Lego characters. Academy-Award-nominated Chico & Rita has planted its story in front of new audiences through a comic and music. And dozens of documentary film projects in production declare themselves transmedia projects.
In journalism new tools continue to emerge. Deep Dive from the New York Times adds new degrees of drillablility to their massive archive, and the array of games published by the Times continues to grow. The explosive growth over the past few years of Tribune Media Group’s ChicagoNow and TribLocal confirm that the public is ready for a sense of ownership of their news as well as deeper engagement with it.
This is not simply a big-media game, however. I continue to watch with pride as my former students find new ways to bring their work to the public through both traditional media and its alternatives. They not only fuel their work but reach new audiences through crowd funding. They offer lectures on their stories, line gallery walls with their storytelling images and collect artifacts that connect to their stories. They reach out to the public by any logical means, and they do it alone or in small collectives.
Transmedia journalism does require more advance planning than other kinds of coverage. Decisions need to be made on questions like what the keystone medium will be, how will the story expand (not repeat) through other media, and what subset stories lend themselves to a particular medium. Our constraints of space and possibility are gone.
But what about limits? Fortunately for us we can call our limits self imposed. We can produce journalism within logical limits based only on the value of a story, the attention of our publics and the budget at hand. We can now work within limits even as we are free of old constraints.
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:
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.