The second screen paradox
Update: I should point out that Heidi got in touch with me over Twitter and explained that she was not criticising the concept of the immersive narrative – indeed she is a fan of Firestorm, mentioned below, and another Guardian project NSA Decoded (which is pretty incredible). She also clarified why she argued that the “Snowfall wannabe teams” mentioned in the post below should be “dismantled”: Heidi tweeted: “Snowfalling is essentially a developer employment programme”. I really hope that’s not true, but her perspective is better than mine.
A fantastic discussion unfolded over the weekend, after The Guardian’s US finance and economic editor Heidi Moore criticised an article for using the immersive narrative form of publication. The form, pioneered by the likes of the Guardian’s Firestorm and the New York Times in Snowfall and Tomato Can Blues, has been used by a growing number of media organisations, with varying degrees of success, such as this by Mashable and a feature about Tamerlan Tsarnaev in the Boston Globe this weekend.
The debate was kicked off by Moore with this critical tweet:
She swiftly followed that tweet with this, more incendiary post:
The retweets and favourites suggest Moore hit a nerve with this point of view, and the volume of the discussion that took place thereafter shows the level of attention currently focused on the concept of the immersive narrative.
I’ve embedded below a brilliant Storify by Mindy McAdams, online journalism at the University of Florida so you can get an idea of the arguments that were set out over the course of a couple of hours. But there were a number of points that I felt went unaddressed, and so thought it would be interesting to set them out here.
In summary, Moore seems to have been expressing a distaste for “me-too” tactics, which are of course common in business and in media. When someone does something well, copycats often emerge, sometimes improving on an original idea, sometimes missing the critical qualities that made it great in the first place.
She has a point. For me, some of the experiments in immersive narrative in the past year have become confusing in their use of multimedia and interactive formats. The Guardian’s Firestorm is a very pleasing experience, but the sense of narrative is overwhelmed by the use of so many content changes that demand your attention as you scroll through it. Mashable’s Kiwi Gardner story verges on the gimmicky, with some unnecessary use of animation and a lot of scrolling, although it has a compelling beginning that sets the scene extremely well. On the other hand, biased as I may be, I think the 33 Digital team got the balance right with the Hotel Price Index we produced for Hotels.com earlier this year; all images, graphs and charts are designed to be read on any device, and the report has been downloaded far more than in previous years.
So what are the elements that the New York Times got right with Snowfall, and which other media and brands could learn from in the way they communicate their own narratives? Here are four key elements that seem to me to just work in Snowfall:
1. It uses multimedia for a high-impact introduction
2. It uses a range of media types to create atmosphere
3. It blends multiple media types together while remaining in balance
4. It works across all devices
Successful immersive narratives use the latest web technologies such as HTML and CSS to introduce a new language of journalism that reaches beyond the words and pictures that dominated the past, and allow content to spread seamlessly among the consumers and sharers who connect via a huge range of mobile devices.
The point that immersive media were now a core element of journalism was made in response to Moore by Gabby Stern, deputy online editor of the Wall Street Journal:
However, Moore disagreed and made a couple of arguments that suggest a very narrow definition of journalism, where imagery and design are of secondary relevance. She suggests that, while there may be a place for these, they detract from the act of journalism:
It brings into stark relief an issue that is at the heart of both journalism and communications at present – what is the correct scope of a modern-day journalist or PR professional? Both professions have grown up with the primary focus on storytelling through the form of written and spoken words. Images play an important role, but it’s always been accepted that you could survive a career in PR or journalism with word skills but being ignorant of the language of imagery. In other words, pictures are for the picture people – the rest of us will get by with words.
I no longer believe this argument is viable for people working in communications, any more than it is for those working in journalism. I think we have to accept that, in the post-print era, imagery, sound, moving pictures and interactivity are going to play an increasingly central role in storytelling. We need to start treating the ability to create narrative experiences using a broad set of different languages as a core skill. It doesn’t mean we all need to become designers and coders, but we do need to stop seeing these skills as alien, as confusing, as time-consuming, as expensive.
As you can see in the Storify below, Moore goes on to argue that the resource it takes to pull together an immersive narrative is so high that it reduces a newspaper’s ability to engage in journalism. I would argue, on the contrary, that any journalist or editor who does not recognise these skills as core to the act of journalism is missing the future of information consumption. And this is just as true for company and brand marketing and communications departments as it is for the media.
Once you’ve read the Storify, go back and read the Boston Globe’s Tsarnaev story again, and see if you think Moore’s criticisms are fair.