Within newsrooms, the visual journalist’s task is to continually evangelize for an assignment process that facilitates effective storytelling. We must help text-producing colleagues understand visual journalism as “realtime” activity. We cannot produce documentary-style storytelling if we aren’t given the chance to observe and record significant storytelling events as they are happening. Too often, assignments are ill-conceived to yield those possibilities.
We need to identify the core “why and how” of the story as those that yield the underlying “universal” truths of a story, while recognizing that the “who, what, when, where” questions while essential to the coherent expression of a story, are really more likely to be the questions of the “specific.” Both sets of questions need to be raised and addressed in a narrative if it is to have full value to an audience. Framing the narrative with such questions means looking hard at the possibilities of the story’s narrative arc and understanding what logistical complications are likely to be present in the observational process as algebraic equations to be solved. Without such a full examination, it is unlikely that assignment planning will consider the variables with sufficient clarity to yield a good end result.
In addition to examining the likely logistical variables to be found in an assignment, we need to ask the right questions about the values of the assignment parameters and the likely actions of our characters. These need to be considered as entry points into the content creation process but we also always need to leave ourselves the flexibility and room to reconsider and refashion aspects of the story if they are not really getting us to the heart of the authentic observation we need to make as journalistic storytellers.
Moving forward, the challenge will be adapting our story-telling methods to devices that don’t offer the same opportunity for media element fusions as the web itself. As we move to delivery devices that function much more like television screens of today, we will face the challenge of compacting layers of information into a tight physical space. This challenge will be particularly acute on small screen devices such as cell phones or iPods. We need to have imagination, technology, and strong rapid workflow processes that support the deconstruction and reconstruction of web-based presentations into formats that are better suited to these other devices. Following this methodology will enable us to ensure that our content maps to audience expectations for the devices in use, while also enabling us to maintain ubiquity of contact with our audience.
This ubiquity of contact extends potentially the value of the news brand as a trusted purveyor of journalism and storytelling. Facilitating the production process transformation requires us to add new skill sets to the multimedia team. Those positions can be formally added to a multimedia team or created “virtually” by enabling particular people to work together collaboratively on an interdepartmental basis. At a minimum, I believe we need to include motion graphics designers, information flow specialists (most likely from the video game development environment), and strong code programmers to the mix. In addition, if we must assume the burden of creating and managing studio-based “shows” as a means of utilizing print reporters to full advantage for their “beat expertise”, then we need to add producers who have experience with live broadcast shows to the mix of a team. Set development, lighting and sound engineering can be outsourced, but someone needs to have the experience to guide their efforts.
In addition, we need to continue to promote cross-training of multimedia team personnel so they can be quick to identify the best mechanisms to shape visual journalism for a particular story. While I think specialization will still be a major factor in multimedia team staffing, highly cross-trained personnel help ensure that critical content development conversations are going to take place from positions of experience and knowledge.
Further, integrating the efforts of the multimedia team with the current design, production, and technology teams can help boost the interactivity of a media company’s multimedia experience. This is important because the younger audiences on the Internet have come to expect presentations that allow self-directed explorations of the content at hand as a primary value. They dislike pre-determined paths that force media consumption in specific ways. I also see this as counterproductive, given the varieties of learning styles that can exist in the human family. Content determinism seems to be a self-defeating strategy.
All this is to say that we need to advance specific pathways for exploration, focused on developing new mechanisms for content expression that support the media consumption patterns likely to be unleashed by specific devices. We need the support to innovate with these devices in mind, and we need the imagination to envision and attempt new mechanisms of storytelling that would take advantage of the display devices available to us. All of this needs to occur with a framework of planning and forethought that enables us to remain focused on expressing stories of maximum journalistic value, consistent with the journalism standards that are clearly in the public interest.