Monday, Chris Brogan wrote a blogpost about what attributes he envisioned being necessary for successful for a next generation media company, particularly if one was to be underwritten by venture capitalists as a startup now.

I was struck by item three on his list;

“ Media cannot stick to one form. Text, photos, video, music, audio, animation, etc are a flow.”

While agreeing with that premise, I would say it is also precisely the problem with current media companies, particularly those driven by print organizations. They simply don’t understand the potential of visual narrative and the limitations that current practice places on the use of visual content to tell stories.

In the past decade, I have watched newspapers continually reduce the ambition, and therefore value, of their visual journalism by insisting that it be used principally as a means to illustrate text narration rather than allowing it more room to tell a fuller story. Often, visual journalism tends to be evaluated by top editors for how literally the photos reflect the story sense conveyed by the writer’s observations. If a photo offers a strong expression of a key descriptive passage or story fact, then it has served its purpose and is judged successful. 

That kind of literalism cripples the potential of visual journalism to tell a strong narrative story. It also hampers the development of young visual journalists who are taught that the raw productivity of multiple daily assignments is more important to the publication than any kind of careful, patient observation designed to produce powerful stories that would connect with the audience.

I think web-based visual journalism is particularly at risk when shaped by this paradigm. As Chris points out, the ability to fuse photographs, audio, video, information graphics, music, animation, and even text and then structure in a narrative flow is exactly the compelling opportunity for storytelling that is offered by online journalism.   Audiences can be exposed to powerful narratives with action, dialogue, and movement in ways that print cannot facilitate. Such stories can transport individuals beyond the boundary of their own lives and enable both intellectual and emotional connection to information contained within the story framework.

Given current economic realities, it is clear most newspapers will not be returning to use of “picture stories” as an aspect of presentation, even as they struggle to hold audience attention. This is true because such visual journalism demands time for creation and space for display that aren’t part of current orthodoxies about print workflow and productivity measurement.

However, in the online arena, transcending such orthodoxies, and enabling experimentation with the fusion possibilities created by blending media types together, can offer new rich storytelling that is just beginning to reach new potential.

I hope visual journalists everywhere understand the traps that spring from the “literalist/illustrational” model and they opt instead to work toward developing techniques and skills to support the vision referenced in Chris Brogan’s post.   Visual journalists who allow their own craft practice to be defined by their employers’ expectations may be setting themselves up for failure in the future.