The Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton wrote a great post (based on a lecture he delivered in Toronto) on eight trends that could have a big impact on journalism this year.
Benton touched on a big range of technological, economic and cultural trends that are already changing the industry but one of the things that Benton doesn’t explore much is how storytelling is changing in journalism.
Many of the tools of online journalism open up new ways to tell stories beyond the simple inverted pyramid or even the long-form feature, the proverbial meat and potatoes of day-to-day journalism.
I’ve listed some of them below. This list isn’t complete by any stretch of the imagination, but it is some of the more interesting new storytelling forms and ideas I’ve come across.
Using social networks to tell stories
Millions of us spend a significant amount of time on social networks and journalists have been mining Facebook and other social networks to find sources and research background.
We’ve already seen Tweets and Facebook status messages used the same way as quotes and other personal statements. The Washington Post, last fall, used a woman’s facebook messages as the narrative thread for a moving story on her pregnancy.
In the same bent is a social media curation tool called Storify (Keepstream is another tool) that lets journalists stitch together stories with significant social media components to them. In print, it makes perfect sense to quote tweets and Facebook status messages. Really, there’s no other way to get your point across. But quoting a tweet and not linking out to it (or embedding it) in an online story is kinda silly.
What’s becoming clear is that the journalist can play a key role as curator and annotator of the seemingly endless amount of information out there in our various social networks. I can’t think of a more perfect example of this than Andy Carvin’s tweets throughout the last few months.
Carvin has tirelessly sifted, authenticated and commented on thousands of tweets flooding out of the Middle East and North Africa as revolution gripped the countries in those regions.
Below: A screenshot of Andy Carvin’s Twitter account
Maps and location
One of the more intriguing online stories I’ve seen in recent memory is Open File’s moving Remembrance Day maps of Toronto’s Second World War dead. It was part of Open File’s ambitious Remembrance Day package, the Poppy File. Patrick Cain plotted the homes of almost all of Toronto’s war dead to powerful effect. Many of these maps were also broken up to show deaths by service, or deaths from certain battles during the war. The timeline of the war itself also give us a natural narrative.
An amazing piece of journalism where maps play a key role is Basetrack, the project sees multimedia journalists embedded with soldiers in Afghanistan.
Another interesting tool to tell stories is Intersect, which I got to see in action at last year’s Online News Association conference. The program allows you to place photos, stories and media in the “intersection” of time and place using maps and timelines.
Toronto start-up My City Lives is another intriguing location-based project that drops user-generated videos on real-life locations in Toronto.
Google Maps is already a pretty easy tool to use and with location features becoming more common with smartphones, I expect to see ambitious online outlets play with mapping and location to tell stories.
Below: A part of Open File’s Remembrance Day project, the Poppy File
The game as story
Gamification is one of those buzzwords that’s being thrown around a lot lately. Think of programs like Foursquare that use badges, points and leaderboards to encourage user activity. There are people thinking of how to use gaming mechanics in the news but I want to turn this 90° and ponder whether games themselves can be a way to tell a story.
Could a Canadian newspaper use a game to simulate a federal election? What about a game where you simulate an economic policy? This isn’t necessarily new either, sports fans have been able to join fantasy leagues, pools and tournament brackets for years.
Below: Foursquare badges aren’t news but maybe there are ways to get gaming elements into the news and storytelling?
A few other trends that aren’t going away anytime soon:
Crowdsourcing — Sometimes the best stories come from your readers. Facebook, blogs and twitter have made more people comfortable with sharing stories. As a result it’s much easier to get great content from your readers.
Another intriguing use of your readership, and one that’s actually almost two-years-old now, is the Guardian’s “Investigate Your MP Expenses” project. It asked Guardian readers to sift through the thousands of pages of MP expense reports and flag anything suspicious.
Data journalism — Each year that goes by journalist and programmers are getting savvier at using data to tell stories and shed light on issues. Here’s a good round-up of a few intriguing data journalism projects.
A few concluding notes:
New tools and new methods don’t mean that traditional journalistic storytelling isn’t important. The well-crafted, thoroughly researched feature can be more compelling than all the slideshows and maps put together. There’s also the simple fact that in daily news environments there’s little time to work on fancy features when there are real deadlines at your heels.
Nonetheless, it’s important to note that more people are getting their news exclusively online and that devices like iPads and smartphones can make for rich storytelling experiences. With little more than pen and paper journalists have been able to tell some amazing stories, I can’t wait to see what they’ll be able to do with the tools out there now.