Posted on March 24, 2008
Essentials of a multimedia journalism package
I’ve been reviewing the final projects of a few of our journalism master’s students. Every year we have some students who produce an online package as a project in lieu of thesis; the project is supposed to represent an effort comparable to that required to produce a traditional master’s thesis.
We have a good idea what the package will contain before it’s complete. The thesis process begins with a proposal by the student, and a committee of three faculty must approve the proposal before the student starts reporting and gathering assets for the project. We see a plan and rough sketches and a summary of the background research.
The finished projects tend to share specific weaknesses — which I also see in a lot of professional online packages.
1. Missing the opportunity of the intro.
This happens in one of two ways: Either the visitor is overwhelmed by a giant overload of information and choices, or the choices are too few, obscure, or skimpy in detail to capture the visitor’s interest. The front of the package, usually the first thing the visitor sees, absolutely must make a great first impression. That doesn’t mean it is merely pretty. The front must immediately (and simply) convey an honest sense of the story, why it matters, and what you can do here (from this point in the package).
2. Weak blurb or summary text.
Passive verbs and repeated words totally kill your prose — even more so in short blurbs than in long-form writing. Every introduction, every heading, every tag line has to work really, really hard to be interesting and very clear. One of my students recently had two blurbs on her front that totaled about 100 words in which some form of the verb “struggle” appeared six times. This is like telling people, “Go away! Nothing here worth staying for.”
3. Inconsistent navigation cues.
People will lose patience with the package if they begin to feel lost, or if they get a sense that new things keep appearing and they are entering a bottomless pit. This can happen if you use different labels, icons, or link text to lead to the same thing. If instead you are consistent, you reduce the cognitive load on the site visitor, and she feels like your package is easy to understand.
Make sure that when someone has clicked a link (or button), the text (or something) at the top of the next thing signals that it is the right thing (the same one they clicked for). If the top heading on a new page is very different from the link text previously clicked, for example, the user will think it’s a mistake. If she clicks the back button, you might well lose her.
4. Redundancy, especially on section fronts.
This includes not only reuse of the same words (see No. 2 above) but also the repetition of the same information (not to be confused with consistent navigation cues; see No. 3). If you take the same blurb I already read on the front and repeat it at the top of the next page or screen, I immediately feel a bit bored. You’re wasting time. I know that already. Tell me something new now!
5. Lack of context.
Somewhere in the package, you’re going to tell me about the number of war casualties, for example. Somewhere else, you’re going to tell me how many soldiers went to war each year, and how many came home. It might make sense, in the structure of your package, to separate these two. Online, however, you can never assume that I have already encountered one before the other.
In the effort to break up the information into neat modular sections, it is easy to separate information from the context needed to understand it. I find that totals, for example, are often missing altogether in students’ work: 4,000 soldiers — out of how many? $7 trillion — out of how much? “Only” 20 days — compared with what other length of time? “More than in the neighboring countries” — which countries are those?
6. Reliance on conventional print formats.
In a recent meeting about a student’s project, a colleague of mine who teaches magazine journalism — a pure print guy, in other words — suggested that a big gray block of prose relating various facts could easily be formatted as a bulleted list instead. Yes! He also noted a lack of transitions within the student’s text stories, and he suggested inserting subheadings. Yes, yes!
Any time you can get away from long, unrelieved blocks of text, do it. One reason is, of course, to make the material appear less intimidating. An even better reason, though, is to provide multiple points of entry into the information that’s on the screen right now. I do not mean links (points of entry to other pages, other screens) but literally the single screen that’s visible at the time.
If the user’s eye starts to wander, to drift, and then it falls on something that brings the mind back, brings the interest back — then your story gets another chance. If the eye wanders and the mouse finger starts to scroll, then your story is likely to be abandoned.
Do It Now — Don’t Wait
The best time to tackle these attributes of the package is at the beginning — not at the end. I think part of the reason that I see these same weaknesses again and again is that students (as well as journalists and producers) lavish all their attention on the deeper substance at the heart of the package. After the core elements are just right, there’s no time and energy left to perfect the outer elements.
The outer elements, however, are more important than the core.
Without effective outer elements — navigation and blurbs, titles and summaries, structure and usable connections — the audience for the package will never reach the core.
The time and effort devoted to the core will be for nothing, in other words, unless the outermost signals and enticements persuade a visitor to come inside, to invest time, to look deeper.
The job of the outer elements is twofold:
- Make the site visitor curious. Not in a fake or teasing way, but by showing very quickly that there really, truly is something new here. Example: A student wrote a text story that began with a quote, “I am trouble with a capital T.” About four paragraphs later, I learned that the person who said that had been “kicked out of three different prisons.” Only then did I feel curious — and the problem is, I would never have read that far in any other situation (I had to grade the student’s work, so I had to read it all).
- Convince the the site visitor that you will continue to deliver, without wasting time. The process of getting the online audience to sit still and spend more than two seconds with your labor of love — your story — requires these steps: (1) “This looks interesting” (click). (2) “Oh, yes, this actually is interesting” (click). (3) By now, people should be absorbed in your story. If so, they’re in. If not, they’re gone.
What I see in students is an assumption that most people are going to patiently stick with a package until they get into the core elements. Exactly the opposite is true. Very few people arrive at a package with the thought that they they are ready to settle in and spend 10 or 20 minutes there. Their natural inclination will be to glance, and then go elsewhere.
Our goal is to lure and then capture (and hold) as many people as possible out of the total who arrive. We do this by offering small, extremely interesting new bits — the outer elements of the package.
Only if you draw them inside — with great care — will they stay and take the time to appreciate all your hard work on the core of your story.