Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Al's Rules for Online Storytelling

ST. PETERSBURG, FL.--"Make it interactive."

That was the first of "Al's 10 Rules of Interactive Storytelling" Al Tompkins of The Poynter Institute offered today to 25 journalism educators.

Tompkins, group leader for Poynter's Broadcast/Online team, is playing tour guide/ring leader/master of ceremonies this week for an intensive four-day seminar on Multimedia Journalism for College Educators sponsored by The Poynter Institute.

“The Web does interactivity in ways no other media can do it,” Tompkins said.

Tompkins showed a host of examples of the power of interactivity in online storytelling, including:

* The Herald Tribune's" "Broken Trust," an investigative report on abusive teachers

* The Washington Post's "Faces of the Fallen," a report on the soldiers who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq

* The Times Herald-Record's "I Didn't Do That Murder," an investigation of the 20-year-old conviction of Lebrew Jones

* Obleek.com's chilling map showing the toll of the war in Iraq on coalition forces.

"Ask yourself: What data do I have and how can I make it interactive," Tompkins said.

Here are Al’s 10 Rules for Interactive Storytelling:

1. Make it Interactive. It is NOT about YOU. Let the user manipulate the page, select what part of the story he/she wants to explore. Offer the story in graphics, text, videos, audio and photo soundslides. From the very earliest planning stages of your stories ask, “how can we make this interactive?” Don’t wait until the reporting is done and stick the leftovers online.News consumers want what they want how they want it and when they want it. It is true for the fast food business, it is true for the coffee business and it stands to reason that it would be true in the information delivery business too. If the user wants a completely packaged story we should offer that. If they want a short text brief, we should offer that. If they want just the video with no narration, let’s give it to them. Let them decide and let them interact with the information. They choose what they want to know.

2. Make a Front Page Promise.
On the web, headlines must rock. Three word headlines, playful use of words and noun-verb-object heads work best. Your website’s front page must make promises about how the reader will benefit if they click a jump link. The most important promises speak to one of five main motivators:
—money, family, health, safety and community.

3. Make it Raw. The more important or visual the event, the more willing I believe the public is to tolerate lower quality video and less than perfect sound. Content is king. That is not an excuse however to intentionally lower your photographic standards or your professionalism. Raw video allows viewers to experience the story on their own terms, not just “know” what happened.

4. Leverage Your Digital Assets.When you cover trials, get copies of jury instructions, photos introduced to juries and put those online. Web Weather might target special interest forecasts that might not have a wide enough audience in the paper, but groups like surfers, farmers and golfers want detailed information about wind, waves, humidity and lightning. What other information do you collect in the course of your day? How can you leverage it to a higher use?

5. Involve the public and/but make it meaningful.
Forget the lame online polls. How easy is it for your online users to contribute video, photos or report details of a spot news story, parades, holidays and weather? I do not recommend opening every news story up to comments. Some stories lend themselves to comments and some don’t. Be prepared to monitor discussions about news stories.

6. Tap into Local Passion Groups. What are people in your area passionate about? In San Francisco it is dogs and the environment. In Arkansas it is hunting. In Charlotte it is NASCAR and church. Whatever people are wild about in your area, give them a virtual watering holes where people gather to talk about and share whatever they are passionate about.

7. Map it! Interactive mash-up maps are a great way to allow the public to interact with information. Sites like ChicagoCrime.org map daily crime data over an interactive Google map. WTHR in Indianapolis mapped broken tornado sirens so viewers could see if they would be safe when a storm approached. Reporters at the The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette now collect GPS coordinates for where they gather stories and the stories get mapped daily so readers can see when a story is reported in their neighborhood. You can create free interactive flash maps easily using QuickMaps.com.

8. Feed Your Needs too.
Use your online site to explain who and why businesses should advertise. Most news sites make it nearly impossible to learn anything about online advertising opportunities. USAToday.com’s online employee roster now offers links to stories that every staffer has contributed to.

9. You must SHINE online during elections, big breaking news and special events coverage. That is when sampling will be the highest. Do not disappoint people who are sampling you for the first time. Constantly update. Make sure you are changing your lead photo and headlines. Timestamp your coverage to highlight how often you are updating. It might be well worth hiring freelance help to make special events shine online.

10. Save elaborate online presentations for projects that have long legs.
Don’t be afraid to build coverage over time. When a high profile crime occurs, for example, build a special section of your site that will become the home of continuing coverage that could last years as the case moves through the system. For major investigative projects, include reactions, follow-ups, legislative action and resolutions that flow from the stories. Put your biggest multimedia efforts in those parts of the site that will have a long life. A great hurricane resource page could be useful for years. There are topics and stories that occur over and over in your community. Save your big efforts for those kinds of efforts.

You can read a longer version of Tompkins’ rules in the July/August 2007 issue of Communicator, the magazine of the Radio and Television News Directors Association. And for more words of wisdom from Tompkins check out Al’s Morning Meeting on Poynter.org.

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