How hacks and geeks can work together to create web specials

As integrated newsrooms become reality and ‘hacks and geeks’converge, enhanced collaboration unlocks new, creative ways of telling stories.

Spurned on and inspired by cutting-edge developments outside journalism, online news outlets are experimenting with mashups, creating videos and – particularly in the US – interactive database features.

But how can journalists put these exciting ideas into practice and set realistically achievable goals, given the time and resource constraints in a fast-moving news environment?

Careful preparation and continuous communication with all team members is crucial. The first step in creating FT.com’s multimedia feature ‘Why are food prices rising?”, for example, was a planning meeting.

We discussed how each of the four contributing reporters’ expertise could help illuminate how the various factors shape the changes in the cost of food and what elements of the story needed to be included to answer questions our readers may have.

When selecting one or more media to tell a story, consider which one(s) will get your point across best, bearing in mind possible time constraints your team may have. Is the story visual or data driven? Is a simple graphic enough or does the project warrant a more complex treatment? Do you have the technical knowledge to pull it off?

For our food project, we had to think creatively about how to explain a multifaceted topic in a way that would be thorough, but not overwhelming, contain hard data, while not flooding our readers with numbers.

The use of video and flash allowed us to combine storytelling tools and marry moving graphs with illustrative photographs and reporters’ narration to camera. Structure your project before you start reporting or designing. The fact that each reporter provided insight from a different perspective (trade, commodities and energy, retail and environment) intuitively informed our narrative structure.

Readers online don’t want to be forced to follow stories in a linear way, but instead prefer to choose what to view, so we added multiple entry points in the form of chapters into our story.

Just like when planning the overall structure, discuss with each contributor what reporting is needed for their specific piece. Try not to duplicate information that has been covered in another chapter.

While it is always tempting to try and include ever more angles and details – after all, there is sheer unlimited space online – it is best to resist that urge. Online readers’ attention spans tend to be shorter than offline. We aimed to keep our videos to just two to three minutes in length, with one line of argument for each video.

Creating multimedia features can take anywhere from a couple of hours, in the case of slideshows, to weeks for larger packages, so it pays to pick a topic with shelf-life.

Food prices have been rising consistently over the past year, and for some commodities the price increases have been spectacular, so we knew that our feature would tie in with ongoing reporting about food inflation for some time. Picking a project that is likely to be perennial, allows you to cross-reference it repeatedly, driving more readers to it.

Once you decide on structure, outline your interaction design, but keep enough flexibility in the visual design. Especially in running news stories, new developments may require you to consider adding further – or different – elements.

Planning a feature means not only mapping the visual, interactive and content elements, but also the corresponding deadlines.

Project editors need to be clear what they expect from reporters and designer/coders, but also need to be prepared for those deadlines to be renegotiated.

Unlike commercial online projects such as building websites or microsites, where the process is often highly structured, creating a feature in the newsroom is prone to be iterative. You most likely won’t have the luxury to wait until all elements are locked down before you begin flash work, as deadlines are looming.

Keep talking to the newspaper editors regularly and update them on your progress. Get them on board to ‘go big’on the story launch and create some excitement.

Remember, the definitive rule book on multimedia journalism is not written yet. Be creative and flexible. Try new approaches, as each story will warrant a different treatment. Start small, but aim big.

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