Strong Silent Types: Evil Robots and Their Way with Words

Read Me! Glorious Feature Design and the Future of Digital Journalism

On April 15th this year the New York Times announced that they were the recipient of no fewer than four Pulitzer Prizes for journalism. The most talked about of these awards in the web design community was, by far, the one journalist John Branch received for "Snow Fall" - a sprawling six part feature about a fatal avalanche in the Cascade Mountains, Washington State.

It was, the Pulitzer committee said in their ruling, an "evocative" piece of writing and "a project enhanced by its deft integration of multimedia elements."

Yesterday, The Guardian published their homage to Snow Fall, "Firestorm", which is a multimedia retelling of a devastating Tasmanian bushfire. The feature is notable for its inclusion of ambient sound effects.

Two weeks ago, Pitchfork unveiled their specially designed Daft Punk cover story. And finally, in examples from the current year, Wired.co.uk launched a fancy redesign in April. Nate Lanxon, Editor, said in a blog post: "We can tell our stories better using inline quotes and pictures that are relevant to the text they appear next to. No more picture-at-the-top-and-loads-of-text-below limitations."

Indeed, ever since ESPN's incredible feature piece, "The Long Strange Trip of Dock Ellis" last year (which predates Snow Fall), I've been seeing more and more publications try to out-do each other with eye-catching features and integrated multimedia storytelling. As a semi-professional web designer and freelance feature writer, this whole business has interested me deeply and I love seeing what everyone is coming up with.

The Long Strange Trip of Dock EllisESPN's stunning "Outside the Lines" special feature on baseball star Dock Ellis.

For too long some mainstream newspapers and magazines have treated their websites as dumping grounds for the text and thumbnail images associated with their articles. That or, worse, they kept the "web edition" sparse, merely uploading blogs and short pieces as a sort of useless teaser for the print version. New design concepts on the block may, at last, be provoking a rethink.

Personally I don't believe in paywalls or a future of digital publishing which ignores long form writing. I think we're way past the legitimacy of either option, to be honest. That's partly because there are already publications proving, by virtue of their profitability, that special feature design is what online journalism has to do next. The trick, of course, is doing it in the right way - and at the right cost.

Chad Mumm is Creative Director of Vox Media Inc. Vox publishes The Verge, Polygon and SB Nation - all of them beautifully designed, content rich sites with special features a regular part of their output.

"What's most exciting to me," Chad told me, "is the promise of making full use of what I believe to be the best medium for storytelling. Never before have creative people had so many tools for telling stories (at such low cost). What's more, the medium supports fluid media presentation. A story can start in text, turn to video, add audio and reconfigure in real time."

"Never before have creative people had so many tools for telling stories"

If you look at a Verge feature (like this one), you'll notice that the wrapping site template is retained. The vehicle for design elements is traditional web stuff - we're talking about bespoke backgrounds, fonts, colour schemes, embeds, wrapping and floating. But it's unique each time, the story is told in a lively, visual way.

It's a content management system (called "Chorus") behind Vox's sites which makes this possible and the software is intended to be easy to use as well as powerful. Other sites have recognised the importance of back-end tools which allow for front-end flexibility. Wired.co.uk's developers, for example, explained their goals in this area in a blog post in which they noted, "We wanted to create an article for readers to read, not an article that drags along an antiquated right bar of popular links with it."

And the future possibilities afforded by actually tailoring relevant content to specific readers are endless. Chad Mumm put it like this:

"The capability for two-way communication exists thanks to the data the publisher knows about its reader so you can only imagine what sort of creative opportunities are out there if you tie in things like time-of-day, geolocation, income, likes and preferences, and other data."

This makes me think of the BBC's prototype "perceptive radio" which live-edits the content of scripts based on the listener's location or factors such as the current weather.

But sticking with the written word, the technology and resources behind these impressive special features has a lot to do with whether they will, in the end, come to define the future of long form digital journalism or not.

Consider, once more, Snow Fall. If you go to the final part of the piece and scroll to the end, you'll see that the whole feature is the work of no fewer than 11 - yes, 11 - graphics artists and designers, three video contributors, a photographer, a researcher and John Branch himself. The sheer level of manpower involved here was enough to prompt scoffing by some at the idea that this represented a sensible way forward.

But recently Cody Brown, founder of a content editing app called Scroll Kit, tried to prove that technology could make the process of "making a Snow Fall" easier. He attempted to replicate the feature - element by element - himself. He actually did this successfully, but was quickly sent a cease-and-desist by the New York Times' lawyers.

Regardless of the NYT's protection of their intellectual property, Cody's mission here, to - as he puts it - "make the internets more cinematic" and "transform the stories you tell on the web" - is worthwhile. His aim is to develop technology that makes special feature design more accessible, quicker and, simply, easier. As he said on Twitter yesterday, he thinks layouts should be "reusable":

 

 

This month I decided to do my own special feature. I wanted to do something completely separate from the main template of The Machine Starts - something which would give me an excuse to unleash a lavishly long essay punctuated with embedded media. It might not be a Snow Fall, but "Strong Silent Types: Evil Robots and Their Way with Words" was a real experiment and I am indebted to Charlotte Mei's beautiful original illustrations which helped make the whole presentation unique.

Although construction of the page and the necessary modifications to themachinestarts.com probably took a total of about 20 hours' work, the satisfaction of doing something different, and thinking about page layout as integral to the structure of a piece, was fascinating. I'd like to think that I'm not the only imitator of the big guys' feature strategy. Indeed, I'd like to think that anyone who wants to self-publish online might have the opportunity of doing this sort of thing themselves, rather than relying on standard WordPress templates and generic designs.

One final thing Chad Mumm said to me stuck in my brain a bit. "Feature production," he noted, "has traditionally been a way for magazines and publications to both define their brand and get attention."

He went on to explain how New Journalism in the 1960s and 1970s exemplified this but via traditional print magazine formats. For a long time digital publishing has been fighting to be recognised as a force in its own right. Popular subscription iPad editions of beautifully designed magazines like Wired and Vogue has helped that, but websites need to be part of the action too - precisely because they're free.

You still want people to buy your print edition, so don't just regurgitate what's in it in on your website. Make the medium the message and people - customers or advertisers - will pay for it. This is all part of re-positioning the digital as something valuable, something of worth. All of our digital dualism, our constant referring to the digital as ephemeral, cheap, transient or not fully real, has to be combated somehow.

"This is all part of re-positioning the digital as something valuable"

Has anyone sat down and thought about what the last fifteen plus years of online newspaper publishing has done to our understanding of a web page's value? Has anyone, besides creative directors and web designers, openly acknowledged the fact that if you treat digital as a second-rate medium, you're predetermining the price you can place on it?

I agree with those who say "print will never die" - because we have a unique and much loved experience of print which will always be worth something. But digital needs to mark itself out too. We need to be able to look at a digital feature and understand that it is a) only possible as a digital feature b) enticing to read - not just look at and c) not a reason to ignore print.

It's all about experiences. The digital experience needs to feel as glossy and indulgent as the print one can. It doesn't have to be a multimedia overload to do that - it just has to work, it just has to tell the story in a compelling and unique way.

As I note above, there are already people out there doing that. But I want this to be for everyone. I want it to be both accessible to all yet also something which is adapted by the very best to set ever higher standards for digital publishing.

I think it's possible. With the current wave of one-upmanship in magazines' digital design departments, the evolution of new tools and the persistence of adventurous bloggers, I think we really could do it.

And if we did... boy, wouldn't it be a scoop?

 

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