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Online Storytelling Forms

Here’s a look at how to tell stories online and the range of forms being used by major online news organizations. This list was the first comprehensive effort to document online storytelling forms (Has since been updated).

Here’s a look at how to tell stories online and the range of forms being used by major online news organizations. This list was the first comprehensive effort to document online storytelling forms (Has since been updated).


By
Jonathan Dube
Publisher, CyberJournalist.net


Telling news stories online is exciting and challenging because of
all the tools at our disposal. Online journalists must think on multiple levels
at once:  words, ideas, story structure, design, interactives, audio,
video, photos, news judgment.

TV is about showing the news. Print is more about telling and explaining.
Online is about showing, telling, demonstrating and interacting.

It?s easy for online journalists, most of whom have been trained in
traditional media, to stick to broadcast and print storytelling forms.
But that would be a waste. In online journalism you have many more elements
to choose from — so use
them. Combine the best of each world:

  • Use print to explain
  • Use multimedia to show
  • Use interactives to demonstrate and engage

Layer information. Aim to present news in small, digestible bits of information, rather
than everything at once.  Then use some combination of text, art,
audio, video, links and interactives to provide deeper layers of information
the readers can dig into as they desire.

Give choices, but limit them. Too few choices and you?re not taking
advantage of the strengths of the Web. Too many choices and readers
may not select any because they might get confused or not want to spend
the time deciding. Plus, the more choices you give, the less control
you have over how the news is conveyed. Remember, readers are coming
to your site in part because they trust your news judgment, so don?t
be afraid to use it.

THE BASIC FORMS

Here?s an overview of some of the most common storytelling forms being used
by major news Web sites. 

PRINT PLUS
This is the basic form of online journalism, used by every major news site. 
The form is built around a text article, often one that was not specifically
written for the online medium, such as a wire or newspaper story. Other
elements — such as photos,
links and video — are
then added to the page containing the story. The form is efficient for
resource-strapped news organizations, making it easy to slap together
an already-written article with a clip from TV.

But the form doesn’t take full advantage of the medium. It is
primarily
a way to repackage news produced by traditional media.

Examples:

Just about any story on MSNBC.com,
ABCNEWS.com
or CNN.com.
Also see
CyberJournalist.net’s Writing News
Online
tips.

CLICKABLE INTERACTIVES
In the most common forms, these are simply interactive versions of
traditional newspaper and TV graphics, used to provide information to
supplement a story. But the same tools and techniques also can be used
to tell stories. Generally, they combine linear and non-linear storytelling,
giving the user choices but guiding him or her along a path. Animation,
audio and video can be incorporated. This form has produced some of
the most innovative online journalism. It tends to be very popular among
users, but is very time-consuming to produce.

Examples: 


Catastrophic Collapse

Experience
a hacker attack


Market Map

The
rise, fall and rebirth of AT&T
 
Meteor
Show

Aircraft
Carrier Tour

SLIDESHOWS
Slideshows are more than just an easy way to present multiple images
about an event. The form can be used to tell stories all by itself,
by combining descriptive photos and using the caption field to convey
additional information. Rather than just throwing together a bunch of
interesting photos, select photos that will, when placed in a certain
order, tell a cohesive story —
creating a type of photo essay.  When done right, this is one of
the more effective ways of using the Web to tell stories.

Examples:
NYTimes.com photographer’s journals from Afghanistan
WashingtonPost.com:
U.S.
Under Attack

MSNBC slideshows

WashingtonPost.com
CameraWorks

Bald
eagle removed from Endangered Species List
Hope at Hearthbreak
Motel
Behind
the Iron veil

Shattered

AUDIO STORIES
Audio can be an incredibly powerful way to tell a story. There?s a
reason radio didn?t disappear after TV came along; a reason NPR is
so popular. Use audio when there are sounds that can?t be
described in words; where the way a person says something adds
meaning that the words alone can?t convey. Don’t just hotlink text
to a sound clip of a quote. Use photos of the speakers to draw users
in. And use audio in creative ways, to bring traditional ?man on
the street? or ?ask the experts? features to life.

Examples:

Inside the Church of Bethlehem
Frontiers of War
102 Minutes

Audio
Man on the Street

Threats facing U.S.
forces: Ask the experts
Forecasting
the Future
The
Enemy Below

Action News Reporter

NARRATED SLIDESHOWS
This form combines slideshows, audio and the video format to create
powerful stories. The producer selects a series of photos and audio
sound bites that complement one another. As the photos advance automatically,
the corresponding audio plays. The entire package is played as
streaming video or a Flash movie.  The result often resembles
the documentary style of Ken Burns. This is a useful form for stories with strong images and sound. 

Examples:
Eyewitnesses remember Columbine (click on photo)

Voices
of Columbine

Casualties
of War (Click on ?video?) 

The Nuclear
Gamble (Click on ?video?)
Sun-Sentinel.com: AIDS in the Caribbean
DallasNews.com:
Ladder Co. 6, Engine Co. 9

LIVE CHATS
Chats may not seem like storytelling, but they can be. When moderated
properly, live chats are an interactive version of the Q&A story
format, where the readers are asking the questions. This can be a very
powerful way to convey information because the readers help create and
shape the story. Of course, many online chats are either not moderated
at all or are poorly moderated, and as a result are nearly worthless.

Examples:
Columbine
High School shooting

The
World Trade Organization protests
On
the scene in Pakistan

Oscars
wrap-up

QUIZZES AND SURVEYS
These too may not seem like storytelling, but the forms can be used to do so.
Rather than just make a quiz as a fun aside to a story, an entire story
can be told through the quiz format by breaking the information into
questions and answers. This can be very effective because it engages
the reader.

Examples:

Choosing
a console

Invasion
of Privacy
Video
Game Ratings

Test
Your Economic Literacy
Caddy
for Tiger Woods


When to call
your baby?s doctor
Dateline Eyewitness
story
and Interactive


ANIMATED STORIES
Stories can be told entirely through animation. This is a great way
to tell stories visually when there are no photos or video. A
lot of animation being used online doesn’t tell a story. 
Heck, it doesn’t tell the reader anything.  And along with
all the annoying ads, that’s just helped train online readers to
ignore animation. So don’t overuse it. 
That said, it can be a great tool. It’s OK to use it to
grab the readers attention, but do so sparingly because it can
distract the user from the real story. Use animation to bring
newspaper infographics to life, when you want to recreate an event
that has motion or action, to show how something happened or
works. Or use it for
humorous stories, such as editorial cartoons.

Example: 


The Enemy Below

Molecular Motors


Race in Southern California: 1940-2000



How
the pros play the masters
, how Tiger played it

and Virtual
Fly-Through

The Animated Oliphant

INTERACTIVE WEBCASTS
Webcasting streaming video has been around for a while, but news sites are just beginning to combine various interactive tools with the Webcasts into packages. Adding links to related stories, chats, polls that are referred to in the Webcasts create a very different experience than just watching TV. More advanced versions use technologies such as Flash
and SMIL to embed instructions within the video so that text, links, etc., can be called up at certain points in the video. During the 2000 presidential debates, for example, MSNBC.com users could watch the debate on their computer and on the same screen see a ?Debate Monitor? panel that was continuously updated with facts related to the statements each candidate made, as they made them. (Link no longer available).

Examples:
Yahoo! Finance Vision

Chris Wallace?s Internet Expose


MSNBC’s
Silicon Summit

Broadband.MSNBC.com

Sam Donaldson @ ABCNEWS.com

MULTIMEDIA
INTERACTIVES

Many online journalism elements and stories combine multiple
forms, creating, in effect, new, hybrid forms. The most
complicated of these use Flash’s animation technology to integrate
text, clickable graphics, audio, photos, video — and sometimes
even polls or quizzes — to create comprehensive
interactive packages that tell stories in ways no other medium
can.

Examples:
U Street in Focus
Flash 9/11
The
Darkest Day
Pearl
Harbor
Driving through the ages

OTHER FORMS

Here are some other interesting examples of online storytelling:

Stories
without words:

Timba
Brava
The
Fall of the Twin Towers


Surround photos and video:
Inside
space stations

Panoramic World Trade Center

Virtual
tour of a haunted library
360-degree
Diallo crime scene views
Video On
the Fly



Weblogs:
Dan
Gillmor’s News and Views
According
to the Times

E-Media
Tidbits


The CyberJournalist List

Databases:
Crime Tracker
Does the IRS owe
you money?

Using community:
Cell phone horror stories
Airport shutdown
Thanksgiving slide show
A tribute to
our troops

Interactive memorial:
A
tribute to Columbine

Text chunking
(Semi-linear storytelling with words):

Ailing
Airlines

Dive and Discover
America
in a slowdown

America
in a slowdown — Post Sept. 11

Games:


Baggage screening

Dateline
Spelling Bee

Electoral
chess

QB
the Bush team
and QB
the Gore team

A
look at the new strike zone


Fueling the Future
HeraldNet: Waterfront Renaissance

8 Comments

  • buroshiva dasgupta

    this is brilliant. it makes infinitely easier for media instructors to explain the convergence – and the divergence – among the various media platforms.i cant thank jon for anything better.
    days ago i had an arguement with my colleague who insisted that multimedia and online writing were the same. he is right to some extend. but i differed saying that while online webwriting was more informative multimedia writing moves towards entertainment. more like the difference between news writing and feature writing in print. jon helps to clarify my point when he says through multimedia you “add” the eye and the ear. you show. there is a difference.

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