So many great stories disappear from view too soon

This is an old post but I’m leaving it here for the hell of it. Failed links have been updated or removed.

I like the idea of a home for retired stories. Somewhere they can gambol about care free and folks can come and visit them.

So many stories, especially human interest stories and videos and photo galleries, spend a day or two in the limelight of news homepages then drift under water never to surface again outside an occasional friendly Twitter link or random search result.

In 2010 I judged the multimedia category of the Qantas Media Awards and was warmed by many of the stories I saw.

There was the man photographed while having a prosthetic nose built and fitted, a drag queen undergoing transformation from man to showgirl, an interview with Wheel Black Jai Waite,  Anzac Day specials, a relaxed interview with Ritchie McCaw, and a New Zealand couple describing a series of events that led them to live in a tent briefly as their finances unraveled around them. From the same nzherald.co.nz series about the recession came Grace, an Otara mother whose story moved so many people she was flooded with offers of help.

I had seen none of these stories before. Not one of the hundreds entered in the awards. Imagine that. All that work, all those inspirational people, all those great stories seen once by a few hundred or thousand people then all over Rover; out to pasture.

The winning entry, Smile High by Mike Scott et al who were then at the Taranaki Daily Times, was about a Kiwi dentist who travelled with a team to fix broken teeth and a few other ailments for people in a remote mountainous region of Nepal. It was an interesting piece and well executed, and exceptional in that the Daily News chose to leave it in the navigation bar months after its debut, effectively giving it a mid-term home and ensuring many more people get to see it than otherwise. A nice move, I thought, when that much effort had gone into producing it and there was room enough on the site.

A key factor in its success was that you could reach the package from any related story – all the stories about the topic linked to the video, and the video linked to all the stories. It was set in a flash package which made the stories easy to navigate through: from an introduction to the video piece, the still images, map of the team’s journey, and links to other stories and the websites of the protagonists. It was clear that a lot of thought had gone into how the reader was going to experience this story.

You’re probably wondering why I haven’t linked to these great stories. Good question. It’s because I couldn’t find them to link to. I didn’t spend hours on it, to be fair, but I did spend longer than your average punter would searching for them before giving up and getting on with my day. These stories are more than a year old now – they’re retired.

There are people far more qualified than me who will tell you how difficult it is to manage archival material. But I can’t help thinking about the long-term payoff in figuring out how to resurface it.

At the very least some disciplined labelling and metadata could go a long way towards keeping these stories relevant – headlines, datelines and summaries, additional context in the narrative or title slide, links to related material on and off the site.

It was an interesting experience for me judging the awards. I was a first-timer and hadn’t been to the awards previously so was a bit unsure of protocol. There didn’t seem to be any specific criteria for the judging so, given there were hundreds of entries to look at, I came up with my own.

In a nutshell, I was looking for compelling stories that were competently told, technically proficient and packaged so they were easy to find and share, and came with enough context to be useful to readers whether they saw the story on the day it was published or a week or a year later. To that end I viewed each entry not only on the DVD or USB  provided, but also in its natural habitat on the host website.

There’s clearly no shortage of good stories in New Zealand – there were plenty among the entrants, including those mentioned earlier. And there were some that stood out for storytelling and technical proficiency. Simon Baker’s work, for example, was competent and engaging and I imagine he’d be seen as a safe pair of hands in any newsroom.

His work was not packaged as well as it might have been on the nzherald.co.nz site though, I thought, and I would love to have seen headlines, summaries and perhaps a contextual title slide added so readers long have a reason to click.

I noticed a general lack of attention to these basics on both nzherald.co.nz and stuff.co.nz. Stuff came out slightly ahead in headlines and summaries, a feature of their templates, I think, but was let down by the way some of its newspaper sites require the reader to click twice to get from a story page to the video; there’s sometimes an odd interim page with just a link on it, which seems a bit daft.

Nzherald.co.nz is generally more direct but could do with some discipline in labelling, and it would be lovely to see their features, such as the recession package of last year, pulled together somehow so you could navigate the whole lot easily rather than stumbling across one set of links one time you visit and another set another time.

Other stories entered in the awards suffered a little in the telling because, for example, there were too many images (and particularly too many similar images) in a slide show, or the slides moved too fast, or the text was too small to read or had too many typos, or there wasn’t enough information to make sense of the video without also seeing its anchor story (ie not enough who, what, where, why, when), or the story was longer than warranted or produced for a TV documentary audience rather than a web audience with busy lives and itchy trigger fingers. It has to be said, too, that using a trial version of SoundSlides is not a good look on a news site owned by a profitable company.

Overall, though, I’d say well done all and keep up the good work. Multimedia storytelling is in its infancy in NZ newsrooms and I’m heartened by what I’ve seen. So keep on experimenting, I say. I’ll look forward to seeing what you do next.

The three main criteria I used for judging a good multimedia story:

  1. Usability: item is findable now and in the future; headline, summary, dateline and/or narrative provide context; links to and from related material.
  2. Storytelling: item tells an engaging story (complete with who, what, where, why, when); adds to rather than rehashes the anchor story.
  3. Execution: item is well shot, edited and packaged.

Seven questions I’d ask when creating a multimedia story:

  1. Does this video/slide show/audio add anything for the reader?
  2. Is it worth our time to produce or should we link to something someone else has already done well?
  3. Can a reader get to this content in-page or with one click?
  4. Does the thumbnail/headline/summary/link on the story/ homepage give people a reason to click?
  5. Given that many people will follow a link from a social network or blog to this item, is there enough information in the headline/summary/dateline/intro slide or narrative to explain what it’s about?  How about in a week’s time?
  6. Are there links from the item back to the main story? To related stories? To useful websites? Can people find their way to one and back again?
  7. Can we learn anything about execution from nytimes.com?