Where are all the interactive journalists?

In the beginning there was the Internet. And that’s how journalism turned digital. Newsrooms where formed to ‘feed’ this new beast. Later on, these new team where integrated with the print team (or should have been). Thus appeared the online journalist.

Nowadays, with the push mobile has given publishers around the world, a new challenge is faced by the ‘old’ teams. Applications (be it on mobile or web based) need a new language. We no longer need ‘just’ online and print journalists.

What we need is interactive journalism.

What we need are professionals that can create digital narratives.

Let me explain this by telling a small story myself. Ten thousand years ago, in the Northern part of Portugal lived a storyteller. His name was John of the Paleolithic (JP for his friends and fellow tribesman). Now, JP had the important task of transmitting the tribe’s knowledge onto younger generations. One day, a small child from the tribe asked JP, as he finished the day’s story; ‘JP, what shall become of us, once you are gone?’

That question made JP think, and hard he though. There must be a better way to tell my stories. A better way to share the knowledge of the tribe to the children and to the children after them.

JP knew he must find an answer to this question. And what does one do, when he needs innovation? JP went to the tribe’s inventor, Steve of the many jobs (SJ for now on). What JP needed was for SJ to come up with a way, a tool, that would allow for a better storytelling.

SJ was excited by the new challenge and went on thinking and inventing. One day, after the day’s story, SJ called for JP. ‘Here is the solution for your problem’, he said. ‘It’s called ink and with it you can paint your stories and generations after generations will be able to learn from your knowledge, long after you’re gone’.

Ten thousand years ago, someone painted the rocks in Vale do Côa with daily stories. Those stories are still there to be learned by anyone.

Why have I made up this story? Because, from the beginning of human kind, we have always used new tools to enhance our storytelling.

This is what we need to achieve today. Find the best innovative way to enhance the way we tell our stories.

What we need is interactive journalism.

‘But we already have it, we have a team of online content producers’, I can hear some of you saying.

Online journalism is not interactive journalism; at least no more than online journalism is printed journalism. Which doesn’t mean we can’t do both of them – actually the three of them, as I intent to show with this article.

What is interactive journalism then? Like JP and SJ from my story, we need to use every technological tool at our disposal to come up with the best language possible. From online we have the knowledge to make videos, slideshows, interactive graphics, audio files, etc. From print we have the powerful written word at all its might and the amazing world of photography, rich, big, storytelling pictures.

Interactive journalism is using all of this tools mixed together (and I need to put some emphasis on MIXED) to serve a story, the best way possible to suit the content’s need. Interactive journalism is serving the reader with the best stories, regardless of the tools we use.

Another bit of story, this time shorter and more seriously.

More than five hundred years ago, Johannes Gutenberg invented the mechanical movable type printing and changed history and stories. Until our days, through printing on a piece of paper, we had the best way of telling and of distributing our stories. Books where born, then newspapers, magazines, fanzines, etc. Each of this storytelling ‘frames’ appeared from a technologic innovation, but all of them where based on the invention of printing on paper. Paper was the best way to share knowledge around.

Then came the Internet and the beginning of digital distribution. World Wide Web means no physical boundaries for publishers and for their stories and it’s an amazing invention and an amazing tool.

Sadly, let’s face it, news publishers failed big time in using this new tool. End of story and history!

Move fast forward – like today’s inventive digital days – and the publishing business has found the beautiful world of applications, of Smartphone and tablets and, most important, publishers found a way to make business from digital distribution.

Regardless of its bumpy start, not many of us can say for sure that applications, with paid content, aren’t here to stay (at least for a while!).

With tablets looking to become a huge market, Smartphone will get the focus they deserve, which is to provide its users with smart, informative services (and there’s a huge market for publishers here!) and our new friends, the tablets, will be the tools for storytelling.

And this brings us again to the role of interactive journalism.

Think with me, with a fully digital device as a publishing tool, do you really think that written word with accompanying pictures is the best way to tell your stories to your readers? It might be, on some cases, but on the other hand, it might not be so.

Content is king!

Never was that phrase so true. And if content is indeed king the way to present it should be determined by its royal decree. As interactive journalists, it is our duty to use every tool we have at hand – and create some new ones in the way – to take full advantage of a digital canvas and create stories with the full content’s exploitation.

In the end, what interactive journalism is its to have knowledge of the full potential of every digital tool available and to have ideas on how to use them to create amazing stories (the ones that will last ten thousand years?).

Let me show you some examples of what I mean.

Look (and ear) this amazing piece from NYT’s Cathy Horyn. Feel the way pictures and audio are synchronized. It’s a four-minute piece (NYT files it under video, I rather call it an audio slideshow) that flows like a breeze. Now compare it to an online article, also from the NYT, also about Milan’s Fashion Week. A bit dull, isn’t it? You get the slideshow, for you to explore at your own pace, but it doesn’t integrate with the text, does it? Actually, both the slideshow and the text work in separate ways, you either see the pictures first, or read the text.

So, if you where to publish a story on a tablet application, about Milan’s Fashion Week, which one would you choose?

Another NYT example (you got to love this guys!), an interactive graphic on the rebellion in Libya, day by day. If you want to learn what has happen and what is happening on the North African country, the graph itself tells you the story. For each day, readers can read the related article, it opens on another page! This is a very good example of how interactivity and the power of the written words can come together for an excellent storytelling experience. On a tablet application, I would make a button on each daily map to present the text. On currently used application design this is really easy to achieve by using scrolling text, above the background map picture.

For amazing stories, mixing pictures, audio and video, you can’t get any better than Media Storm. I’m a huge fan of their work and the quality of the stories on their website are a step ahead of everyone out there. As an example, look at the work produced by Toronto’s Star photographer Lucas Oleniuk. Airsick: An Industrial Devolution is a great example of digital narrative. This is a feature story by itself on any tablet news application.

Of course that, to produce this kind of content, we need knowledge inside the newsrooms. As interactive journalists, we must be able to find that knowledge. Look on the print team and on the online team to find the best enablers for such solutions. It isn’t really that hard, every set of people has a handful of persons that are thrilled and motivated by challenges. And, if you need some kind of know-how that is not within your team, hire a freelancer. You already do it for illustrations, for articles, etc, why not do it for one video editing, or for an interactive graphic?

Once you find those challenge motivated persons, cherish them; those team members are the change elements inside your newsroom. These early enablers are the knowledge basis of the change every newsroom around the world will have to face and overcome on these new days of digital distribution of your stories. Now, go for it!

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