You might hear people joking about click bait around the web. Try to think of a perfect click bait article title. Mine would be something like “The top 10 ways you’ve never thought of that make people love Kevin Bacon for this one weird secret you’ve never imagined!” That sentence either speaks to me spending too much time in strange places on the internet, or that traditional media techniques just aren’t cutting it anymore on the web (maybe both). In a world where click bait often wins, black text and a few pictures is not enough to secure an audiences attention. Long-form content is losing out to animated GIFs and simplified lists, a content type that sites like Buzzfeed have crafted into an art form in generating page views. How can media companies recapture their readers’ attention and discover effective new ways to convey meaningful, information-rich content?
The bright side is that storytelling isn’t dead - we just have to change the way we go about sharing our stories. Effective media companies have realized that the internet should be treated as a medium in itself, not just a location for content. They’ve discovered the sweet spot between click bait lists and long-form text articles: the middle ground where journalism and web design fuse to effectively tell powerful stories. Thankfully, for every buzzfeed there is a medium.
The New York Times has been at the forefront of this effort. The newspaper’s most compelling examples of digital storytelling include the 2013 Invisible Child piece, the story of an 11-year-old girl who is one of New York City’s 22,000 homeless children, and 2012’s Snow Fall, a six-part narrative about skiers trapped in an avalanche. Other publications like the Washington Post have also experimented with new storytelling models for long-form pieces, and increasingly employ clever data visualizations to make statistics more approachable. Meanwhile, the Council on Foreign Relations fuses text and visual elements within a scrolling timeline to more succinctly convey the myriad of factors contributing to complex political situations. A hybrid of text, images, video, creative graphics, and beautiful design, these multimedia narratives could only be presented so powerfully through the medium of the web.
There’s more than one way to convey a narrative, and another exciting aspect of this medium is the way it empowers content creators to tell stories with data alone. Take FiveThirtyEight’s Senate Forecast, or the New York Times interactive map on Climbing the Income Ladder. These stunning data visualizations don’t exist within the context of a journalistic story, but the design and information is sufficient to get the intended message across. People will only get more creative in the ways they decide to share their narratives. You can find examples of this year’s best interactive experiments here.
And we need storytelling. Despite all the click bait that prevails on the internet today, there is still a demand for meaningful content. People do want rich stories! They want to consume information and understand what’s going on in the world. What has changed is our collective attention span. We don’t just want information - we want information density. We want to know more in less time. Who would voluntarily read a 17 page article to learn something a data visualization could have shown them in two minutes? Someone with a lot more time on their hands than I have.
The most successful web-based storytellers will be the ones who can most effectively give people the information they crave in a connective, concise, engaging way - which is going to get complicated because it will require professionals with diverse expertise to closely collaborate. Journalists, designers, experience analysts, videographers, and developers are all valuable assets to a digital storytelling team, and finding a way to bring their combined skills together is key. Equally important, the best teams benefit from designers who understand the web as a medium, the same way a sculptor has a deft understanding of clay.
Of course, the “new narrative” I’ve discussed here isn’t limited to digital journalism. After all, everyone on the internet has a story to tell. For everything from a non-profit campaigning for donations or a company marketing its latest product, learning to effectively tell multimedia stories is a huge advantage. Nowhere is this more true than in native advertising. The internet as a rich media outlet gives organizations the ability to create really beautiful and dynamic advertisements. By using native ad spaces to tell a brand’s story, these ads have the opportunity to connect with potential consumers in ways they’ve never been able to before.
So, whatever it is you do online, find an interactive way to engage with your audience. I’ve never been more confident in the web as a medium for telling informative, captivating, and important stories. Check out Brandon Morrison's discussion with Michael Keller, an interactive multimedia reporter at Al Jazeera America talking about the role of interactive data in digital journalism.