Posted on January 22, 2007
Journalism stories: A multimedia approach (Part 2)
To continue from where I left off yesterday — here’s where I am taking a turn away from journalism as we know it. What kind of reporting should be invested in EACH module of the story? (Yesterday I discussed how to come up with the modules before you begin reporting the story.)
Module: How Would a Higher Minimum Wage Affect Us?
Don’t waste your great interviewer on gathering the statistical data. The numbers should be the responsibility of someone who knows best how to find them, verify them, and present them in the best possible format. That would be your news graphics artist, your analytical reporter, your research librarian (if you have one). Do you have a database expert? This information needs to be stored efficiently after it is gathered (so you can use it forever, and not reinvent the wheel every time this story cycles back around), and it needs to be presented — in all media — in a graphical format. That means news graphics. If you want to include a history of the minimum wage in the U.S., bundle it into this module — and make it graphical. Text for numbers? Bad! Charts and diagrams for numbers? Good! (If they are done well, that is. Read Tufte if you don’t understand this yet. Or Nigel Holmes.)
Module: The People Who Want a Raise
How about those interviews with the workers? You know a picture of a hard-pressed father of five getting up at 4 a.m. or waiting for the bus is going to say more than 1,000 words written about that moment. So send your best photographer out with the print reporter — and make sure they get audio too. And for heaven’s sake, do a real interview. If all you’re going to do is fish for quotes, why even bother going out?
Module: Impact on Local Businesses
How about the employers? Part of this story is always how small businesses will be “crushed” by an increased minimum wage. Maybe they will have to fire people. They certainly won’t be able to “create new jobs.” I don’t need any more statistics from the fat lobbyists who claim to represent the small businessman. I would understand better if you could show me a local florist, or the guy who runs a lawn service, or a woman who owns a small bakery. I think this part of the story might work best with a short, tightly edited video of each business owner, accompanied by a Q&A-style text. Your B-roll for the interview should show that person’s workers doing their jobs.
You know the core of this story is in the numbers. How many people making minimum wage in your region work for the bakers and the lawn-service guys, and how many work for a gigantic retail or food-service corporation? Can you tell that story? So you probably need a graphic or two in this module as well.
Module: How Our Elected Representatives See the Minimum Wage
This is about how the laws get made. How our government works. Your representatives in the U.S. Congress have been voting for or against minimum wage increases for 60 years already. How have they voted, and what are their reasons? Numbers are involved here — so once again, you will need your news graphics department to step up. But you probably also ought to get on the phone and talk to the people who represent the people in your state. I would separate this information out from the “How Would a Higher Minimum Wage Affect Us?” module — can you see why? That module is not merely about numbers; it is about answering a certain set of questions. This module is about other questions — concerning how the public interest is represented in Washington.
Avoiding Redundant Information
The hardest thing about this kind of storytelling is avoiding redundancy. Some people will want to absorb everything in all four modules. Do not waste their time by repeating the same information in more than one module! With online media, linking saves us from the need to write a “second-day lede” — just link to the related material.
The better the communication is among members of this reporting team, the better the story will be. By dividing the work in advance, you essentially make everyone’s workload lighter. Everyone working on the story needs to keep the others in the loop about what was gathered and what is still out there. This kind of story is not possible without teamwork.
Where Does the Writing Come In?
Let’s face it — no one except the Pulitzer Prize jury reads those 10,000-word (or 100,000-word) stories that some newspapers love to print.
There is certainly a need for written pieces in this story. But no one — no one — needs a comprehensive text-only narrative. Don’t write one. Don’t even start to write one.
I’m not saying it all dumbs down to blurbs and captions. No.
But the writing must gain focus and utility. That means word counts. I recommend a cap of 600 words for any stand-alone text piece in the story package. Don’t forget to use subheadings. They help!
If you really need more than 600 words (and it’s not a list of, say, 10 items at 100 words each), then you have two separate topics. Two 400-word texts are better than one 700-word text.
Open up a dialogue right there in the package. Attach a Blogger blog if you can’t do it any other way — but get people talking. Ask them what they think about the story and the way you told it. Ask for suggestions. And then — follow up.
And Finally: Don’t Bury It!
Play this thing on the home page and in a sky box on Page One every day for a week. Come on, you know no one can find this stuff on your impossibly cluttered Web site! No one should wonder why an online package languishes unviewed when it’s frickin’ hidden below 8,000 navigation buttons leading to Cars, Jobs, and Real Estate. (Not to mention the “Cutest Baby” photo contest.)
If you want the people to see this thing, you have to lay it down in front of them. Generate some buzz. Heck, buy a radio ad during drive time. Get people talking. And then see if you get some traffic on that story.
I think you will.