Telling the Story Online: Aids in the Caribbean

The online version of this award-winning story provides a glimpse of what’s possible when online staffers are given sufficient notice of upcoming projects to get involved in a meaningful way. Here’s a Q&A with the producer of the package.

Reprinted by permission from The Poynter Institute:
The online version of this award-winning story provides a glimpse of what’s possible when online staffers are given sufficient notice of upcoming projects to get involved in a meaningful way. The story comes to us courtesy of Chip Scanlan, group leader of Poynter’s Writing, Reporting, and Editing faculty, and the listserv shared by participants in last year’s Writing Online News seminar. The project is produced online in English, Spanish and Creole. Scanlan describes it as an “extraordinary example of what the web can mean – for collaboration, untold stories, writing for the web with words, images, audio, design.” Donna Pazdera, a participant in the seminar and a reporter/producer for in Ft. Lauderdale, alerted the group to the web adaptation of the paper’s six-part story about AIDS in the Caribbean. Scanlan and editor Bill Mitchell teamed up on an e-mail Q&A with Pazdera, who wrote the scripts for the package you’ll find at
Poynter. What’s the background of the story? Whose idea? When did the reporting get started? When did the online group get included? What was the impact of that timing — the inclusion of online in the planning — on the finished product(s)?
Pazdera: The story came about last summer, from two reporters, Michelle Salcedo and Ernie Torriero (who is now at the Chicago Tribune). Michelle covers the Caribbean and Ernie spent a lot of time in Haiti. The reporting didn’t get started until after the beginning of the year, what with the election debacle and replacing Ernie with Tim Collie. The online aspect of the story started at least two months before publication. We were included in meetings with the print side, so we understood what the story was about. This gave graphics editor Scott Horner enough time to create the story templates in Flash. It also gave me time to carefully read the stories and write short versions of them. It should be noted that originally, the graphics department wanted to have someone narrate the entire written piece, which would have been pretty laborious. Some of my editors suggested we rewrite the story, in a condensed style, which is how that came about.
Q. How many people spent how much time producing the online versions? With all the pressure these days to produce online content that can carry sponsorship, what drove you to produce this story as thoroughly as you did?
A. There were at least a dozen people involved in the online version of the story – from translating the piece, to narrating it, to creating the individual chapters of the project into Flash. The second part, I’m letting my boss, Bonnie Gross, answer: Yes, we have a strong desire to produce content that generates revenue, and we are putting lots of creative efforts toward this. But at the same time, we need to continue exploring news ways to use this medium and we must find ways to develop the skills of our staff members. This project seemed worth substantial online resources for a couple of reasons: 1) We had enough lead time to participate in advance in a discussion of how to approach this online. 2) It was clear from the beginning that the story would be compelling and of national, even international, interest. 3) We knew we had all the ingredients we needed, including substantial multimedia assets that couldn’t be used in print. 4) The project came along at just the moment when the online staff had been “reintegrated” into the newspaper, so everyone here was primed to figure out new ways of collaborating. 5) We had just spent substantial resources training a staff member, Donna Pazdera, who attended a Poynter class in online writing and Flash training. If you’re going to spend the time training a staff member, it’s a waste of resources if you don’t give them a chance to use the skills.
Q. What surprised you about the process?
A. It was daunting, at first, to take reporter Tim Collie’s beautifully written stories and try to shorten them. I didn’t want to mangle his work. Having been a print reporter, I know all about that. The surprising thing is, that once I stopped worrying about doing a disservice to his copy, the writing became easy. It was as if Collie’s story were my notes, and I was writing the story in my own style. I also looked at the photos and tried to make sure they went with the copy – something print journalists don’t get too concerned about – because I knew the presentation’s impact was both visual and aural.
Q. I read through the message board and there appears to be about 40 comments posted. How does that compare with other major online projects you’ve produced? What kind of reaction have you received from other readers in South Florida? From colleagues? From far-flung readers who were alerted to the story on the web?
A. The response we got on the message board was by far, the most we have ever gotten on a project. However, I have to say we made more of an effort to encourage people to respond. When the board moved off our site’s front page, the number of responses dropped off considerably. Responses have been trickling in from colleagues. Usually, it takes awhile because people hear about something through word-of-mouth. Unfortunately, I don’t have much of a handle yet on reaction from elsewhere.
Q. Is this the most ambitious project of its kind you’ve done? Lessons learned for online journalism? For journalism in general?
A. This is definitely the most ambitious thing we’ve done online. I think the biggest lesson learned is that, if given enough time, and access to resources throughout the newsroom, this sort of thing could be done at least a couple of times a year. Obviously, few staffs have the resources to do this sort of project on a regular basis. Also, from a personal standpoint, working on this project gave me an opportunity to work with all disciplines in the newsroom: the reporters, photographers, editors and graphics department. I got a chance to see how each side approaches the work and how each side feels about the others. Sometimes, I found myself as a liaison, explaining why things are to reporters or photographers or graphics staffers.
Q. Anything else that journalists around the country might be interested in?
A. Well, when I went to Poynter last year for the inaugural online writing seminar, I kept wanting to see a story adapted for online. We all talked about it in theory, but there were only a few examples. I think this is the example we were looking for. But one has to realize: no one person is going to be able to pull this off as well as we did. As corny as it sounds, without the help of other departments, this project would not be as good as it is.
Q. I’m fascinated by the multi-lingual approach. How did that come to be: who thought of it, why did you do it, what did it take to do?
A. The multi-lingual approach came out of a planning meeting. We agreed that since the stories take place in Spanish-and-Creole-speaking countries, many of those people might want to see it. Also, a portion of our audience is not English-speaking, so we wanted to ensure they could see the interactive part. Reporters who can read and write in those languages were asked to translate the pieces of the story. They were given about a week or so to do the job. We were lucky to have staffers who could do the job. My personal feeling is, they understand the journalistic approach and can translate with that in mind.

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