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Teaching Online Journalism

Multimedia at a tiny newspaper

The Culpeper (Va.) Star-Exponent has a daily circulation of less than 7,000. It’s small, it’s rural, and it’s owned by a big U.S. newspaper chain, Media General.

The Star-Exponent just won an award from the APME for “Online Convergence,” for a story in January 2006 about the lynching of a black man in Culpeper in 1918. The story is fascinating, a deplorable example of the racism at the core of American history.

The award apparently hinges on the multimedia element of the story package (this was designed to pop up in a small window). It includes a slideshow with sound and some original documents. It’s not one of the cleanest or most usable Flash packages, but this is a very small newspaper, and I give them a lot of credit for making the effort.

I think this package would make a great redesign project for online design students.

I’m really focusing on the way the text is presented — and not the multimedia element.

To see what I mean, look at the first page I came to in this story package: Day 3 in a 3-Part Series on the Last Lynching in Culpeper.

Point 1: From this page, I was not able to find the start of the story. With some patient Google searching, I found this piece — also not the anchor page of the story package. I shouldn’t have to do so much work to find all the scattered pieces of a story! Here’s Day 1 and Day 2 of the series.

Here is the biggest missed opportunity for online presentation: This package has a very, very cool and unusual format based on the way it was researched. To see what I mean, look at these pieces (“Reported, Found, and the Questions That Remain”):

Point 2: This format (“What was reported”; “What we discovered”; and “Questions that remain”) is simply awesome in its clarity and transparency. It takes the lid off the closed box of journalism. The problem to pose to a design student is this: How do you exploit this unique format? How do you use it to enhance the online presentation of this story?

Allison Brophy Champion reported and wrote the story and shot photos. She was assisted with copious research of public records by former local museum director Zann Miner. Nicole McMullin, online content coordinator, did the Flash work. Audio was handled by Karen Newton of the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch, another Media General newspaper. McMullin also contributed some audio and photos.

I heartily applaud the Star-Exponent for doing this story and making it available on the Web. It’s a stellar collection of reporting work.

Now let’s all start thinking seriously about the best way to package such a great collection so that a wider audience can enjoy it.

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One Comment

  1. Rob Humphreys says:

    Mindy –
    Excellent analysis. I enjoyed reading your comments and would like to see what changes your online design students would make. Thanks so much for including our “Buried Truth” series as a multimedia teaching tool. It’s nice to see our staff’s hard work pay off. Take care.
    - Rob Humphreys
    Managing editor
    Culpeper (Va.) Star-Exponent

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