visual storytelling

A Reimagined Version of Local Newspaper Storytelling

The New York Times  shows the way to reimagine newspaper journalism in the digital age with its eye-popping special report on how iconic Notre Dame Cathedral was saved from total collapse by the daring and savvy of Parisian firemen.

The New York Times shows the way to reimagine newspaper journalism in the digital age with its eye-popping special report on how iconic Notre Dame Cathedral was saved from total collapse by the daring and savvy of Parisian firemen.

It is common knowledge newspapers are wheezing on their deathbeds. But before you pronounce the last rites, take a gander at The New York Times special report on how the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was barely saved from a massive fire.

The special report is a combination of journalistic storytelling, eye-popping imagery and informative animation. You really forget you are viewing a “newspaper” as you scan spectacular photography of the fire and learn through animation how close the roof came to collapsing. There are even artistic scenes from a firefighter’s notebook that would make Leonardo DaVinci applaud. 

And it’s all in a newspaper.

Granted, The New York Times isn’t just a garden-variety newspaper. But it does produce daily editions in print that land on people’s doorstep, including mine, just like hundreds of other daily newspapers around the nation. The Times has grander resources than virtually any other American newspaper, but it doesn’t have a monopoly on imagination.

The digital revolution may make the printed page obsolete, but that doesn’t have to extend to the concept of newspapering. The digital page can extend the reach of a physical page and is bounded only by the limits of ingenuity.

Having worked for small daily newspapers, I understand the sense of limitation that can exist in newsrooms. But just as small dailies innovated with offset and color printing, so can newspapers of any size innovate with new digital tools. 

The Columbia River Estuary is a complex eco-system that supports fisheries, marine transportation and local economies. It would be a perfect subject for a digital storytelling project undertaken collaboratively by local newspapers from Astoria to Portland.

The Columbia River Estuary is a complex eco-system that supports fisheries, marine transportation and local economies. It would be a perfect subject for a digital storytelling project undertaken collaboratively by local newspapers from Astoria to Portland.

While working for The Daily Astorian, we covered stories about the Columbia River estuary, a sprawling and highly sensitive ecosystem that extends from the mouth of the river all the way upriver to Bonneville Dam. In retrospect, we wrote stories about the estuary in segments – fisheries, marine transportation, pollution from runoff and recreation. We presented great photography in full-page spreads, but never connected the dots. Frankly, we didn’t think about it.

If I was in my same job today as then, I would propose to the daily newspapers in Longview, Vancouver and Portland a collaborative project that would tell the complete and coordinated story of the estuary of one of America’s most important and seminal rivers. The story could live online as well as on print. It would be an ongoing story that charts changes in the river and the evolution of issues affecting the river and its constituents.

Without websites and digital tools that perform on laptop computers, telling the rich story of the Columbia River estuary would be hard to imagine. With those tools, the story could be told with a wealth of visual imagery that brings text and statistics to life – and to kitchen tables, coffee shops and school classrooms.

Newspapers are undergoing existential change as they struggle to monetize digital platforms and content. Subscribers who want local coverage will also want quality content. The Times special report on Notre Dame Cathedral points the way for presenting significant content in a compelling fashion.

To carry off this sophisticated level of presentation will require different skills than my staff and I had at The Daily Astorian in the 1970s. But many journalists today are digital natives who interact and think differently about content acquisition. Challenges that my age-cohorts would view as insurmountable may only be road-bumps for the new generation of journalists.

This form of deep-information storytelling fits well with “solutions journalism” by offering more than a superficial, fragmented and intermittent picture of serious topics. Readers/viewers will appreciate and benefit from the effort. They may not get the same small-town thrill as reading the police log to see if their neighbor was arrested as a peeping Tom. However, they will be able to engage – at their convenience – with a story with informational depth, visual reinforcement and entertainment value.

As The Times reportage demonstrates, you don’t have to know Paris, French culture or Catholic history to be enthralled with the story about how an iconic building nearly collapsed because a newly hired security guard went to the wrong building and courageous firemen took a risk to save the building and its invaluable treasures. The only thing missing was Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code.

The future for newspapers – and perhaps for public affairs – will be in telling complex stories – and perhaps some little understood common stories – with some digital flair that marries a visual world of storytelling with newspaper reporting integrity. You can’t get that reliably on social media or cable news. You could get that kind of storytelling from a reimagined version of local newspapering.

Don’t forget, the Times special report was fundamentally about a fire and the skill of firemen, which exist in every city large enough to have a newspaper.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

Charting a Communication Course

Blending a chart with the design qualities of an infographic can result in a clear picture of what you want to say. Two examples in the Sunday edition of The New York Times prove the point.

The first appeared on the newspaper's prestigious op-ed page and was called an "Op-Chart." Running in a vertical column, the Op-Chart consisted of a series of squares that showed the relative value of a $1 in purchasing square footage in a number of American cities.

The least space per $1 was in several New York City neighborhoods such as the Flatiron District, Greenwich Village and Chelsea. You could get the most square footage for your $1 in the Berclair-Highland Heights section of Memphis.

In addition to the raw information, the Op-Chart conveyed the context of "space," which was the factor being compared. You could see, without any computation, that $1 would get you twice the square footage in Brooklyn as in the Upper East Side of Manhattan and four times the space in Sherman Oaks in Los Angeles.

The chart did its job with one paragraph of text and a blurb indicating the source of the information. It was efficient and effective.

The second chart showed up, again somewhat improbably, on the front page of the sports page. It showed the hole-by-hole results of the final round of the Masters Golf Tournament between the winner, Bubba Watson, and his 20-year-old challenger, Jordan Spieth. It quickly told the story of how Watson won.

You could read the accompanying story to find out the turning point in the match, but the chart told you all you needed to know. Spieth lost in the middle of the round on Holes 8-11, after leading after the 7th Hole. The chart contained two explanatory notes documenting what you could easily see

The Interactive Illustration

Sometimes words fail, a photograph doesn't show enough and a video shows too much. The happy medium can be found in an interactive illustration.

No other visual tool gives you as much absolute control over an image. You literally can create the image you want, in the style you need. 

Illustrations can offer visual explanations, but they also can act like mini-websites, with "data" packaged in an arresting, accessible visual manner.

Illustrator PingHua Chou offers a great example with an engaging illustration of six "bad drinks." Animals slither, a helicopter hovers and a cloud drops rain in various drinks called Snake-Teo Beer, Iceberg Whisky and Monday Flood. There is sound that adds to the fun.

Clever, you say, but how would I use that in a serious situation? Good question, simple answer.

Let's say you have a complex project with multiple elements spread over a large area. An illustration would allow you to show the entire project with enough, but not too much context. The major features of the project could be interactive, allowing viewers to hover over or click them to pull up details. There also could be a link to get a more in-depth look at that project element.