Digital storytelling and collaborative projects

by Katelyn Becker

As journalism breaks into the digital age, publications are producing projects that integrate digital tools like audio, video and graphics that only the web can provide. Two publications pulled off digital storytelling through their digital projects in different ways.


The first example of storytelling in 2016 is a recent digital project from the Washington Post. The project is called Tainted Water, Little Hope and can be found on its separate web page. The story delves into the lead water crisis in Flint, Michigan through video interviews, text and photos.


Zoeann Murphy is the video reporter at The Washington Post who pitched the project, traveled to Flint to film and edited the video. “The goal of this project was to 1) provide an overview of what happened in Flint and 2) give the story a human face,” she said. “I wanted viewers to connect with Flint residents and get a visceral sense of how difficult and dangerous the water crisis is.”


The story starts with an image of a faucet running. The second slide prompts the reader to turn on the sound saying, “Put your headphones on for the full experience.”


And the sound really does make a difference. Between the video interviews and the short video backgrounds the audio element helps put the reader in Flint by appealing to all 5 of the senses.


Another digital story that appealed to the senses through an innovative medium was a project called Forgotten Memories by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The team used digital tools to tell the story of a woman, June Sparks with Alzheimer’s disease.


In this story, there were longer video interviews of the woman and her family. These videos showed different aspects of her diagnosis and her life. A unique addition to the project was the use of second-long video transitions. The videos appeared between sections and filled the screen. The videos usually consisted of a quote from June Sparks or her family. These snippets helped move the story along and connect the different sections.


Suzanne Van Atten pitched the story to the digital team as an interactive storytelling opportunity. “Forgotten Memories is part of a weekly long-form narrative feature called Personal Journeys that appears in the Sunday Living & Arts section,” she said. “Our digital department was looking for a project to experiment with interactive, digital storytelling tools, and this story was selected.”


Emily Merwin was project manager and lead developer. She said it took 9 months from conception to publication. Merwin said, “We wanted to try a truly immersive project that really brought the user into the story. For that reason we looked for a story that had a deeply personal human story that was also broadly relevant.”


Forgotten Memories visually looked more like a traditional story since there were blocks of text intermittent with the video. The text also had side bar quotes that stuck out in purple in each section.


The Washington Post’s project handled the text differently. In their project, the screen was a full photo or video. With each slide there was a small blurb describing the scene or giving statistics.


Murphy spent 5 days in Flint reporting and filming what she needed for the project. She said spent 10 days editing collaboratively with the team. Leonard Bernstein, another Washington Post reporter, came as well to get stories for the paper. Murphy said Bernstein wrote the texts on each slide.


Both stories also integrated graphics. In Forgotten Memories, there were several sections where the team included graphs about Alzheimer’s and how it spreads, its gender differences, and even the age distribution. One of the graphs was a calculation of the money it takes to care for a person with Alzheimer’s. The annual total cost was at the bottom in purple bolded font.


The graphics in this story were paired with the sections of the story that they related to. With most of the story being a feature of June Sparks, the graphics and statistics made it more generalizable to the audience.


Tainted Water, Little Hope was mostly video interviews and video footage. However the developers started with a map image that zooms in to where Flint is in Michigan. The team also made a graphic to show the amount of lead particles in a drop of water in Flint compared to a drop from Detroit and a drop with a concerning level of lead.


Both of the projects had a progress bar to show how far the reader was within the story. The Flint project even had circles that would fill clockwise to show how long the video was lasting. To keep the reader’s attention with this kind of project rather than a regular article, there needs to be some kind of end point.


Murphy said if she were to do it over she would’ve put more science in the Flint story. She said, “I would have fleshed out a little more of the health and science parts of the project 1) how lead gets into the water, 2) the health risks of lead, and 3) what if any other cities might be vulnerable to similar problems.”


Merwin said that collaborative work did have its challenges. She said, “We didn’t find out until very close to launch that our original plan for the large format background videos caused a slew of technical problems (because we were waiting for the final videos to be edited).”


To measure the success of the story most often, like print, page views are a pretty standard metric in journalism. Zoeann Murphy said, “Page views are an important metric to help us understand if the project worked.” And sometimes readers get invested enough to give you feedback. For Forgotten Memories Van Atten said, “we did get lots of emails from readers.”



The collaboration process was important to the depth of reporting for both projects. Murphy said, “Collaboration is crucial for multimedia projects. The story evolved through conversations with the team. Collaboration strengthened the narrative structure and the overall quality of the piece.”


Although told differently, both projects used various mediums of telling a story. Through video, audio and graphics they showed that a story can communicate a multitude emotion.


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