Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Think about this for storytelling ...

We have to get out of the mindset that a "story" is words (and maybe links and a few photos) if we want to be effective storytellers on the Web.

There well may be times that the "story" is nothing more than a roll-over graphic or map that serves as the first layer of delivering information, some of which in lower layers might be text.

A good example is a new site that combines the ads of Craigslist with the map search service of Google.

Over at Poynter's online news list, the discussion was partly introduced as another potential "oh ***" for newspapers desperately trying to cling to their classified ads. But let's frame it another way -- as a way to think about telling stories. Take a minute and go to

Choose Cincinnati as I did, since I know the area, and the $1,500-$2,000 range. Look what comes up -- Google's map with the location bubbles and, on the side, a list of the properties with links. But click on the leftmost bubble, for instance, and now you have photos, an address, a phone and an e-mail link. Click on the top link, and there's the full "story"with text/description, photos, etc.

Certainly this format lends itself well to this kind of discrete listing. But there are "stories" that lend themselves to this, too -- many more if you start to think about it. One of my classes at Newsplex did a "story" about Columbia's parks. We didn't have a graphic artist nor time to do what I'm proposing -- but ask yourself this: Is the "story" for most people some 700-word story about the parks, their finances, etc. No, it's about the parks near them, what the amenities are, maybe a little narrative history, etc. And that's the perfect thing for this kind of technique.

In other words, in multimedia, our cherished text story might be nothing more than "additional material" two or three links down. The static graphic/sidebar we might produce for print becomes the interactive "story" across media.

We won't succeed until we understand this basic change in the idea of "story" -- from reporters who must gather the needed info to editors and Web producers who must help assign and shape it. And once you start thinking this way, the storytelling also becomes much richer because you begin thinking of the detailed information you need to make it work. That also opens potentially new and enlightening lines of inquiry.

(And notice, this won't be cheap. It requires more people with more specialized skills.)

UPDATE: Here's another example that melds traffic and map data (this one's for Pittsburgh, but you can type in your city and see if traffic info is available.) (Basic link Yet another, according to Online News contributers, is -- New York City specific in which anyone can contribute sites and descriptions based on taks, a process called folkmapping.

This example, by Julia Christensen, is one of my favorite sites for illustrating this concept. The "story" is the interactive map. Each point on the map leads to short vignettes on each project with photos. Under project description are some longer narratives (I think the navigation to these could be improved, and, were this a news site, those vignettes probably would look a little deeper into each one's pros and cons. But this site does not suppose to be a "news" site, so let's not get bogged down in that; let's consider the broader concept of what the site can show us). Update: The New York Times did a good piece on Christensen's work:

What do you think?


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