Brian and I have been friends since he was a graduate student at the University of Missouri in the mid-1990s working on a CD-ROM project as his master’s thesis. We have worked together professionally while representing different mainstream media organizations, and we have taught many times together at various seminars and workshops. Brian made it clear in our conversation over two days that he and his colleagues are pursuing opportunities to create “purpose-driven” rather than “profit-driven” content as his company’s primary mission. While an unabashed new media entrepreneur and capitalist, he sees a distinct difference in MediaStorm’s approach from that of “old media” companies when it comes to shaping and utilizing visual journalism.
The MediaStorm approach to creating multimedia differs dramatically from that being done on most news websites and I continue to believe it offers a much more compelling view of the world for the audience. Only a handful of other mainstream media news websites have tried to create comparable visual journalism.
To me, the difference is stark and clear. MediaStorm storytelling is visual journalism being done to move an audience to think, and feel, and even change individual behavior when necessary to address situations being raised in the stories.
In contrast, most visual journalism created by newspapers is intended to literally illustrate writer’s words and the story narrative being created by text editors who work with the written word. Rarely are photographers or even video journalists working on newspaper websites being given the time to observe and create narrative visual stories with the same depth as those of their text-producing colleagues. They are simply not asked to create in-depth visual stories as context for the major stories of the day so important to the lives of the audience. Instead, productivity is measured by how many assignments can get done in a day and how well such assignments may reflect the main characters in a written story or the situation to be found in the story leads.
While some might say I am comparing apples and oranges at this point, I have a deeper purpose in acknowledging the work being done by MediaStorm multimedia producers. They have recognized the power of visual journalism as a tool for communication and building awareness within a community. They are harnessing visual journalism’s power to express narrative in the multimedia landscape and they are recognizing that powerful visual storytelling can engage audience interest across a variety of platforms. They are crafting stories that can be told with equal facility on iPhones or HD televisions or the web itself. Their stories express powerful narratives on topics that affect the rhythms of our planet profoundly on a daily basis and they are systematically trying to include a layer of transparency about the intentions of the storytellers in the final package. That is something seldom represented in the visual stories told by mainstream media.
Unfortunately, newspapers have chosen a different path in the past quarter century that has increasingly diminished the role of photojournalism and the contributions of staff photographers. Rather than reformulating newsrooms to create more equity in numbers and reallocating space in newsprint to allow as much space for visuals as text, newspapers have chosen to maintain the status quo. Newsrooms are led by editors who think text first, last, and always. They are staffed in numbers so that the ratio between those working with visuals and those working with text is generally about 1:15 at best. Newspaper political culture and management practice continue to create two standards for productivity, two standards for space allocation, and two standards for presentation treatment. Nothing in the equation is set up to enable newspaper visual journalists to succeed on the order of their text-producing colleagues. Interestingly to me, even as newspapers have struggled to maintain their revenue models and circulation, very few have sought to question how the fundamentals of their organizational structure and workflow might be affecting output, particularly for their online operations. Further, they have not chosen to act on the recognition that their audience, particularly the younger demographics, expect information presentation that is visual and aural as much as it is rooted in text. Instead, the mainstream media companies continue to trudge toward the abyss, grudgingly aware of fundamental changes in audience expectations and behaviors, while also woefully slow to react to the implications of new technology for story development and delivery.
Good visual storytelling is a “real time” activity. It requires the storyteller to spend sufficient time to understand the specific truths of a given subject’s life as well as the larger universal truths that may be reflective of the human condition that are also a part of the story. Each good story contains both “small t” and “big T” truths within the observations. Story narrative is propelled by the dialogue and actions of subjects and these observations must be made over time to get to heart of the story.
Equally, the editing process must be aimed at crafting and expressing core themes so as to deliver information appealing to the audience’s emotions and intellect alike. That too requires time to understand the storyteller’s intentions and to edit in a way that is faithful to that vision.
Good visual storytelling, supported by a powerful, collaborative, editing process can yield results that are valuable to an audience and essential if we are to understand the world around us, particularly those aspects that might be beyond the boundaries of our own daily experience.
Good visual storytelling cannot be done without a commitment to attaining maximum quality at every step in the process, even as that involves costs of time and money.
Good visual storytelling must be done by companies that are willing to experiment with both the business model and the organizational forms and workflow being employed to satisfy audience demands.
Good visual storytelling requires continuous innovation and experimentation; acknowledging no form is ever the definitive answer for all presentations and that every story has a unique center and message. Equally, each information platform and display device has specific properties that make it valuable to the audience at a given point in time.
Good visual storytelling means aspirations may sometimes be undercut by failures, but that all failures contain the seeds of possibility for valuable new learning. Informed risk-taking is an essential part of the creative process and group dynamics must value it and support it.
I think the team at MediaStorm understands these principles. They are able to expand their creative vision for multimedia storytelling because of a shared belief in the power of these principles.
I wish I could say the same for most mainstream media companies.