How to produce narratives for digital distribution

In early July 2011, I wrote for this blog an article about how change should happen in the way we plan, produce and present narratives for digital distribution. I was lucky enough that this article rised some attention and I went on to publish an edit version of it on the Nieman’s Storyboard website. I also gave some lectures about the ideas on the article. Nevertheless, I believe that a follow up article is needed, where I can further explain how to produce narratives for digital distribution inside our newsrooms.

“A rule says, ‘we must do it this way’. A principle says ‘this works and has through all remembered time’. The difference is crucial.”

Robert McKee in ‘Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting’

It is, indeed, a crucial difference and I believe that we, inside newsrooms, need less rules and more principles. Robert Mckee defends, on the above quotation, that humankind knows, and has known for a long time, that certain storytelling ‘forms’ really work, in terms of engaging its audience. This ‘forms’ have been around us since Aristotle wrote ‘The Poetics’.

Of course, I add, there are no ‘completly right’ selling solutions for anything, but I believe that if we want to produce content to engage our audiences – thus leading to better sales – we must follow those principles known to work in other business.

In parallel to using those principles, we must also be able to reinvent the way we do things in our newsrooms. We need a new ‘way of thinking’.

Cynthia Barton Rabe, in her book ‘The Innovation Killer’ proposes that, for innovation to flourish inside organizations, we need ‘zero-gravity thinkers’. Innovators “who are not weighed down by the expertise of a team, its politics, or ‘the way things have always been done.’ ”

With this in mind, I defend that the best way to start producing new narratives for digital distribution is through the full integration of the teams working in our newsrooms. It is only through the interchange of ideas and expertise from different ‘editorial areas’ that we can innovate our storytelling.

Our ‘zero-gravity thinkers’ must be the writers, but also the photographers, the designers, the infographists, the video editors, etc, in our workforce. All of them bringing new insights and experiences to a story.

Integration of the newsroom means that we ‘sit at the same table’ editorial elements from different intake and output sections. It is not about tearing down physical walls inside newsrooms. It’s about bringing together, to the planning of each story, all of the team’s elements that will have something to do with the production of that story.

Again, the difference is crucial.

To produce innovative storytelling we need to change the planning of those stories and we do that by introducing ‘zero-gravity thinkers’ to the discussion. Only when a story is being planned and discussed, long before intake team members go ‘out into the street’ to collect content material, can we change the way we produce and present that story. Through expertise inputs from all the members, new and different editorial approaches will arise.

Furthermore, we have another crucial principle to consider, the ‘digital first’ approach.

I believe this ‘digital first’ approach is no longer about breaking news online/mobile and following it up on print/tablet. Today, what is important about ‘digital first’ is that, in order for our intake team to collect all the needed material for the different outputs of a story, they need to think and plan the narratives with the knowledge that it will be the digitally distributed version of the story that will use the most different multimedia assets.

As stated before, we can only do that by planning, beforehand, our stories with all the people involved on the process of producing it.

This is where the ‘digital first’ approach and newsroom integration will merge. And both practices are crucial for publishing new digital narratives.

I mentioned before Robert McKee and the knowledge of a storytelling form that “works and has through all remembered time”. This form of storytelling is based on the principle of the narrative arch and as been used across such different media as theater, movies, novels and non-fiction. It as also been used for journalistic writing (narrative nonfiction). I defend it is one of the best principles to apply for the backbone of narratives for digital distribution. Let’s analize this form of storytelling.

“If you want to write successful narrative, half the battle is knowing what you’re looking for. A sharp eye for story comes from understanding that its basic ingredients are universal and learning how to spot them in the real world.”

Jack Hart in ‘Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction’

Ever since New Journalism, we have read some stories that follow the nonfiction narrative approach. As one can read in Jack Hart’s great book, ‘Storycraft’, this same form has been used in some of the best stories in New Yorker’s magazine and in some book length narratives, such as Mary Roach ‘Stiff’, or Erik Larson’s ‘Devil in the White City’, both of them blockbusters.

Jack Hart tell us, “Successful nonfiction storytelling requires a basic understanding of fundamental story theory and the story structures the theory suggests. Ignore them, and you’ll fight a losing battle with human nature. Master them, and you’re on your way to reaching a large and enthusiastic audience in just about any medium.”

He goes into great length to teach, step by step, how to write such nonfiction narratives. I advise everyone that wishes to ‘step in’ on new ways of telling their stories to buy his book. It focus on character, plot, point of view, etc; and it also teaches through examination of some published, award winning, examples.

Regarding narratives for digital distribution, Jack Hart shares on his book another great piece of information, or tool, and I’m going to borrow it from him: the narrative arch for nonfiction stories.

When starting to plan a narrative for digital distribution, on the newsroom, the ‘integrated team’ must plan the various multimedia assets of the story. They do this by using the narrative arch tool.

The writer should layout such an arch for her story, making sure to present the character – this is done on the EXPOSITION phase of the story arch – ; the various plot points that make the RISING ACTION of the arch; the CRISIS; the CLIMAX and the FALLING ACTION (the fastest ‘part’ of the story).

Once the narrative arch is drafted, all of the teams’ expertise comes into action, delivering ideas on how to best produce and present each of the plot points and major parts of the narrative.

At this part of the planning, I fully advise you to draw a storyboard for the layout of the digital narrative. The website Knight Digital Media Center has a great article about storyboards and I advise you to read and bookmark it for further consulting.

There’s an important point in the planning phase of the story that I want to emphasize.

Since most of our stories are produced to be published across various platforms (online, mobile, tablet, print, etc), you might want to draft the narrative arch as ‘transparent’ as possible. What this means is that one narrative arch must work for the story, regardless of the medium used to publish it.

Just as ‘digital first’ means that we plan the story with all of the different multimedia assets in mind, it is as important to understand that the backbone of most of our digital narratives is still going to be text.

Acknowledging this principle will make our planning much easier.

On the creative ‘zero-gravity thinkers’ meeting, some of the print planed text can be substituted by audio, or video, or whatever digital multimedia asset best serves the storytelling.

Please note that I say we must SUBSTITUTE text. I don’t say that we ADD multimedia to it. There’s no bigger mistake than publishing redundancies when making a digital narrative by using different multimedia assets that tell your audiences the same bit of the story. Imagine having one video and acompaning the text describing what you’re seeing on the video.

What is essential to produce narratives for digital distribution is the planning beforehand, with all the editorial different expertise sitting at the same table (digital first + integration).

Of course, in journalism, as in life, not everything goes according to plan. Redraw the narrative arch and your storyboard as your teams go ‘out into the field’ to produce the story’s multimedia materials. Change plot points – and change also the technical approach first chosen for those plot points – whenever what you’ve planned didn’t match what you got ‘in the field’.

In the end, these are sufficiently plastic tools and practices to enable ‘in the fly’ updates.

To help the planning phase of your story and the choosing of different multimedia techniques to substitute parts of the text that makes the narrative arch, the International Journalists’ Network website has this great article with some tips on what are the ‘strong points’ of each multimedia asset. Mark Gould, on his website Mark Gould Media, also has a very nice summary of the different multimedia techniques and what they should be best used for. To end, there’s also this ‘Cheat Sheet for Multimedia Story Decisions’ post on Mindy McAdams’ blog.

The last key point in producing narratives for digital distribution is the need of a digital editor working in the newsroom. She is the ‘maestro’ in the teams’ ‘orchestra’, that will make sure all the ‘instruments’ play smoothly and as best as they can, to deliver the best digital ‘symphonic’ storytelling to the audience.

Just as you need editors on print and on the website of your publication, you’ll also need someone who understands new digital narratives and is able to ensure all of the newsroom multimedia expertise to be bundled into the best output product possible.

Follow this principles, keeping an open mind in the newsroom so these principles don’t become rules. Don’t be afraid to fail as you try different solutions. Change the way you do your storytelling. Nourish innovation and new ideas.

Or as William C. Taylor, author of the book ‘Mavericks at Work’, posted on an Havard Business Review blog article about innovation:

“You can’t let what you know limit what you can imagine. As you try to do something special, exciting, important in your work, as you work hard to devise creative solutions to stubborn problems, don’t just look to other organizations in your field (or to your past successes) for ideas and practices. Look to great organizations in all sorts of unrelated fields to see what works for them — and how you can apply their ideas to your problems. Who are the most unlikely organizations from which you learn? Do you have new ideas about where to look for new ideas?”

Please let me know your thoughts and ideas on the comments bellow. I would love to ear from you.

2 Responses to “How to produce narratives for digital distribution”
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  1. […] those stories and we do that by introducing ‘zero-gravity thinkers’ to the discussion.Via LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

  2. […] written about the need to explore new forms of digital narratives and how to produce them, I wanted to try out myself in designing such a narrative. Since I’m not a writer, neither a […]

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