But can you tell a story?

Can you do great narrative storytelling purely in XHTML and CSS? Or do you need Flash?

This provocative question stems from a recent blog post by Khoi Vinh, design director for nytimes.com. He didn’t come straight out and ask that, but pretty close:

My complaint, right now, is that the majority of storytelling that happens on the Web is based in the interactively rich environment made possible by Flash. Flash has its uses, and I have no particular disdain for the medium. But its unique value is becoming less essential over time even as native tools like CSS and JavaScript become more capable.

No argument from me. There are things we can do now with CSS and JavaScript that work reliably across all modern browsers, things that back in the Dark Ages of Web design (about six years ago) could not be done — except with Flash. In spite of the advances, however, you’ll still see a lot of designs today (sites, stories, packages) that are 100 percent Flash — even though it is not necessary.

One simple reason for this — especially in journalism — is that there are very few people who are well-versed in both techniques.

In the comments on Vinh’s post, Jeff Croft wrote:

Flash is a tool that designers naturally gravitate towards. When I say designers, I mean classically trained graphic designers — not HTML code monkeys. Flash speaks their language. It’s visual in nature and has similar tools and UI [user interface] to Photoshop, Illustrator, and their ilk. HTML, CSS, and JavaScript speak a very different language: that of computer science.

By and large, Web standards-oriented designers aren’t traditionally trained graphic designer. Rather, they are computer geeks who got into design via the Web. There’s nothing wrong with this, and obviously there are exceptions — but I think this is a fair generalization to make.

That makes good sense as an explanation. In the journalism field, I have seen a fair number of photojournalists (visual people) learn Flash well enough to build elaborate narrative packages. But those same photojournalists could not write a standards-compliant CSS style sheet if their life depended on it. Well, I’m not saying they couldn’t learn how — but they don’t want to! Many visually oriented people turn away and flee after their first glance at CSS. This goes back to Croft’s comment. Even someone who is not a classically trained graphic designer might well feel an aversion to XHTML, CSS, and JavaScript if his or her expertise is highly visual.

Someone who is not a computer programmer, but who is very detail-oriented in a textual way — a copy editor (subeditor), for example — might feel much more comfortable in the code environment. The visual and highly tactile editing environment in Flash might prove harder for that type of person to learn and to use. Visual thinking vs. textual, word-based thinking. Left brain, right brain.

Narrative storytelling

What Vinh’s post does not quite get at, though, is the crux of storytelling.

I’ve been struggling with this with my journalism students this year, because I’m determined to make this group into better journalistic storytellers.

We’re talking about plot and character and arc of story.

We are not talking about interface design.

What Vinh is talking about — if I’m not wrong — is how the physical treatment of the story materials advances or enhances the narrative itself. What’s a bit difficult to wrap your brain around is that we are not talking about magazine layout vs. newspaper layout vs. bound book. We are talking about something more like, “Which was better, the book or the movie?” But NOT QUITE that extreme, because both the code approach and the Flash approach are digital and appear on a screen 12-18 inches from your face.

Vinh wrote:

Actually, I should rephrase this argument: not enough Web standards-minded designers are thinking narratively in the way that our Flash-fluent colleagues are. … There’s very little narrative design being done with these tools …

Now, you may be wondering, “What kind of ‘narrative design’ is being done with Flash that is not being done with code?” I would direct you toward The Whale Hunt, a unique and stunning online package produced by code genius Jonathan Harris and photographer Andrew Moore. (Yes, I said code genius, not Flash genius — because this is CODE in Flash.)

You might also wonder, “What kind of narrative is using Flash when it should not be?” In that case, I would ask you to look at the excellent news package Not Just a Number by journalists Sean Connelley and Katy Newton. Many aspects of this package are served very, very well by Flash. But enclosing the entire interface in Flash is, to me, a partial illustration of what Vinh is looking at: A lot of this could have been done in code, outside Flash.

The home page of the package is a perfect example: Pure CSS and a pinch of JavaScript could do this.

The package’s homicide map, however, is a classic use of Flash’s layering and loading, which can be imitated in pure code but with an inferior result, in my opinion.

Beyond the interface

In many packages such as Red Hot Rails (San Jose Mercury News), we see an appealing Flash wrapper employed to bundle together a collection of story pieces: four video segments, a photo gallery, an animated graphic, and a “throw me out into limbo” link to the text story. This is a collection of narratives, not a narrative itself. It’s like a bento box, a Japanese lunch, where all the items are unified by a pretty container — but I think the narrative needs to become more like a bouillabaisse or paella, with the story elements influencing one another in a more integrated fashion.

The “Not Just a Number” package is a lot like a bento box too.

“The Whale Hunt” is much more like paella.

However, do you consider “The Whale Hunt” to be a narrative? Does it have a narrative train, a storyline? Does the suspense build? Does it create a dialogue with the audience, raising and answering questions, holding you in thrall, leading you on and on to a satisfying ending?

I’m in agreement with Vinh that the split between those who design in Flash and those who design in code is holding back the development, the evolution, of digital and interactive narratives. A better integration of the two techniques will improve and expand the journalist’s options for telling stories. (A recent example of integration is The New York Times’s Baghdad neighborhoods package; best demonstrated on a detail page such as Adhamiya: A Sunni Island Stranded in Shiite East Baghdad.)

I would add, however, that we all (designers, reporters, editors, photojournalists) need to think outside the bento box, the chapter model, the container — and yet, most challenging, we must keep the story, the idea of story, in front of everything.

One story can lead us to ask for another story, and another (think of Shahrazad in The Arabian Nights). The introduction to Train Jumping achieves this perfectly — you are eager to hear more. But a collection, an array, will not have the same effect of sparking our interest and drawing us in. After the brilliant intro, “Train Jumping” invites us to “experience the lives of the train jumpers in seven chapters below.” I’m gone, outta here, done. They lost me.

But morning overtook Shahrazad, and she lapsed into silence. Then her sister Dinarzad said, “What a lovely story!” Shahrazad replied, “You have heard nothing yet. Tomorrow night I shall tell you something stranger and more amazing if the king spares me and lets me live!” (Husain Haddawy, p. 37, Knopf 1990 edition.)

15 Comments on “But can you tell a story?

  1. From my understanding, if I’m not mistaken,
    Flash is better for protecting your intellectual property
    because it is designed to make photographs and videos
    a little bit harder for people to steal.

  2. Of the different multimedia packages you posted, while The Whale Hunt is the most visually stunning, I also think it does the worst job of telling a story. The interface is not particularly easy to use, and it’s very hard for the user to figure out what’s going on.

    Not Just A Number and the New York Times piece both do a great job of presenting information, but neither really tells a story.

    I think Train Jumping does the best job of telling a story, followed by Red Hot Rails, though they’re not necessarily the best. While I agree that people do need to make an effort to break the story away from the container, there’s also a distinction between just presenting information and telling a story.

    Sometimes, a reader/viewer will want one, and sometimes they’ll want the other.

  3. Flash packages are hard to edit, hard to change up, hard to reuse. Doing everything in Flash also makes it take longer to load…So I agree, do as much as you can without it.
    Not Just A Number is occasionally glitchy because they used Flash instead of some jscript. It makes me sad, because it is an otherwise amazing piece.

  4. Thanks for those examples. When I read Vinh’s post a few days ago, I wished he had provided some.

    Avoiding Flash whenever possible seems wise for the reasons you and Megan Taylor cite, and because basic browser functions – copying text, the keyboard shortcuts for the back and forward buttons – don’t work in Flash.

    And thanks to your culinary references, I am now hungry for some seafood.

  5. As someone who originally came from neither a programming or design background I have been simultaneously learning both. I find the programming more interesting than the design stuff, but I think with enough will anyone can learn. The problem is for many jourop’s and newspapers, not everyone wants to learn.

  6. A lot of what appears in a newspaper on any given day is basically raw reports, and not exactly stories. We call many of these pieces “stories,” but there’s obviously a difference between a narrative and a report.

    Sometimes we just want a bunch of data — say I’m trying to learn why my property taxes are being increased.

    The journalism that changes the world, though, is usually in the form of a narrative. This is not at all strange, because from the earliest days of human communities, we told stories to help one another understand the world and how to live in it.

  7. Great observations, Mindy!

    I feel like many times multimedia packages tend to try to force other media paradigms into the world of hypertext. While soundslides is a perfect example of a medium suited to the web, wrapping your entire multimedia presentation in a flash body.. well, not so much.

    Going all flash also tends to make the powerful broadcasting extensibility of semantic media a lot harder to take advantage of. How many flash packages are reaching a wider audience through XML syndication, for example? That may not be your media package’s purpose, but regardless, making good use of web standards gives you a more flexible foundation to work with.

  8. Thanks for the great article, Mindy!

    A case I’m trying to make in our newsroom is for Flash to be used in components – widgetizing, if I can overuse a word – rather than in big clunky presentations. I think it’s great to have a nice Flash interface to embed a huge number of photos with a story – maybe more than your CMS normally handles well. I think having a good Flash presentation for playing audio files is nice. Even a module in which Flash is used to do a better job with interactive mapping than I can do with JS – sure.

    But where I get a little worked up, and what I’m surprised I didn’t see more comments on, is when everyone wants to put the story text inside this big square Flash… THING. What about searchability? We did mention the lack of copy-and-pastability, which is another drawback. But no one can find the stuff once it’s off our home page, even though search has been a good facet of our site.

    It also makes it hard to update, as was mentioned above – not just to make changes, but to add another “installment” or another story on a related topic. Text CMS is evolving, and we are getting better and better at knowing how to make it work. Why not let it do what it does best and let Flash be a design element – not a CMS?

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  11. if done right, Flash allows for many keyboard functions like those found in SlideShowPro. And copying text is done in various ways as well. But i don’t think most decisions are made because of an excess of tools available (a Flash coder and a java/css coder on any given project) but because of a lack of it, as pointed out earlier. but a good coder is a good coder, and css is intro stuff compared to AS3. The real talent comes in knowing what both approaches can accomplish, and making effective editorial/producer decisions based first on what functionality serves the story, and second on what functionality serves the user. it’s hard to balance the story value vs. the user’s experience value.

  12. Excellent thread, Mindy. We’re having similar discussions on the same topic at the Berkeley J-School. My thoughts:

    Flash is not a bad thing in and of itself, but it does come with a bunch of disadvantages that are harmful to usability, accessibility, findability, bloggability, editability, interoperability, search (and thus traffic), etc. Yes, there are workarounds for most of these, but not without jumping through a lot of hoops.

    To me, this is not so much a design question as a matter of choosing the right tool for the job. And there are a lot of factors in deciding what’s the right tool for the job.

    It’s also not a question of code vs. WYSIWYG – more sophisticated Flash presentations still require ActionScript, and less complicated HTML presentations can be done in Dreamweaver or similar without touching any code. If you’re using a templating system in either Flash or Dreamweaver, the process can be made easy enough for journalists without a lot of tech experience to accomplish.

    The key is to recognize what in a planned UI can only be done in Flash, and to limit the Flash usage to just those elements. What can be done with standard technologies (i.e. not Flash) should be done in with standard technologies.

    While this seems like a pretty clear-cut rule of thumb, it’s not always so straightforward, as some visual designs don’t lend themselves to being broken up into Flash and non-Flash elements. But visual designs that do lend themselves to being segmented should be segmented.

    Publications have so much to gain by minimizing their Flash usage. It’s a shame to see so many multimedia packages being presented in 100% Flash when they really only need to be maybe 20% Flash.

    On the other hand, there are the problems that non-Flash sites present when working with existing content management systems. Some publication sites may be amenable to loading up custom mini-sites to live alongside their regular content, others may not. For those that are not, a self-contained .swf upload may be the only option.

    On the other hand, some pubs that are capable of uploading custom mini-sites may tell their editors that they’re not, for a host of reasons. That’s an area where editors, EICs, and IT staff really need to be educated on the benefits of keeping Flash usage to a minimum.

    Because of the infinite variety of story presentation ideas and CMSs, there are no hard and fast rules we can give out – only pointers and guidelines.

    (These comments are my own and don’t necessarily represent the opinion of the Berkeley J-School as a whole).

  13. Thanks for the detailed comment, Scot. I think you’re right on target for most of what you said. One quibble I would throw out is that one could be TOO gung-ho in minimizing the use of Flash in favor of a hybrid model.

    In particular, I mean when people construct packages that load a new page every time the user views a new image. This is a sleazy method for inflating page views — but at the expense of the user experience. Sending that server request for each click is a waste of bandwidth.

    Flash can be employed to make a user experience more seamless, faster, smoother. It’s quite a pity when people bypass that benefit in favor of something clunky.

  14. Too true. This is nothing new or specific to news sites, though; people uncomfortable with code (especially when WYSIWYG editors were much more barbaric, although I suspect they haven’t improved much) have been using Flash as a crutch since its inception.

    At some point, I would have advocated the abolishment of Flash forever solely due to the grievances inflicted upon the Internet by its users. However, I’ve seen some great applications recently, and I have to admit that I enjoy a good Flash game sometimes.

    Just think of a world without YouTube and its ilk, too! Speaking of which, I hear good things about BigThink ( http://bigthink.com )

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