Cheat sheet for multimedia story decisions

As newsrooms everywhere struggle to adapt to the digital information environment, everybody in the newsroom needs to gain some multimedia literacy.

At the basic level, that means you understand what the media are suited for. Even if you do not know how to make an audio slideshow, you must understand what kinds of stories work well in the audio slideshow format — and which stories are poorly suited for it.

If you don’t understand that, you’re in a weak position for telling stories in the 21st century.


  • Seeing / hearing directly
  • Motion / action
  • Audio & video complementary; puts you there at the scene
  • Experiential
  • Present tense


  • Depth
  • Context / background / analysis
  • Low-tech — produce it anywhere, distribute anywhere
  • Literary
  • Links
  • Conversation
  • Fast & flexible
  • Cheap
  • Multi-platform “as is” — no conversions, no incompatibility


  • Stops time (viewer can study it)
  • Saleable (profits)
  • Fast to be absorbed
  • Sense of truth-telling
  • Can be complementary or stand-alone
  • Language-free (needs no translation)
  • Less expensive than other media (except text)


  • Theater of the mind
  • Hear it for yourself
  • Fast info about a speaker (personality, region, age; subtext)
  • Listen while multi-tasking
  • With or without narration (to add facts)
  • First-person
  • Verisimilitude

Audio slideshow

  • Layered still images and sound
  • Requires input from the user (McLuhanesque “cool media”)
  • Mood, emotions, feelings
  • Pulling two disparate things together (whole is greater than sum of parts)
  • Takes advantage of the still photo approach
  • Expands on traditional picture story


  • Interactive
  • Personalized information (news near you; facts that directly affect your life)
  • Verifies
  • Relational (this plus that)
  • Long shelf life
  • Reference (go back again)


  • Visualize complex information
  • Easy to digest
  • Comparisons
  • Spacial understanding
  • Chunk the info (into pieces, parts, or sequences)
  • See the unseeable (e.g., inside human anatomy)

My friend Regina McCombs generated these seven lists in a session on “Planning a Multimedia Story” at Poynter earlier this week. Regina is a senior producer for multimedia at, the online arm of one of the largest newspapers in the U.S. She asked the journalism educators in the room to shout out the strengths of each media type, which she wrote on a flip pad one by one. (It’s an exercise you could do in any newsroom meeting, or in a classroom.)

Too often, journalists today still operate on auto-pilot. At a newspaper, the default is text. At a TV news operation, the default is to race to the scene with a camera. All the energy pours into a first rendering of the story in a format that might not be the best format for that story!

Too often, the best format is completely ignored.

This is the big shift that is required now. Without multimedia literacy, the people in your newsroom can’t do a good job for the digital distribution channels that have already outpaced and outstripped your traditional media platform.

See also: Online Media Types (a chart)

15 Comments on “Cheat sheet for multimedia story decisions

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  5. Under “video” I think I would add “showing emotion.”

    Under text I would add “easily scanned.”

    Very good list though!

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  11. Um. This post seems to think there is only one way to tell a story. The same “story” will be treated differently in print, TV, radio, the web, in photos (or a photo essay).
    The post is provocative. I think is misses a key point: there is no “story” until the journalist makes it so. The “story” doesn’t exist until it is mediated somehow.
    The medium the journalist uses to mediate that story will shape the story.
    Of course, some information is better shared visually. Cooking shows are not good on radio, for instance. But you still get food shows on radio, and the best journalists make their medium serve the story.
    If your post is a call to think more broadly about how to present the story, that’s great.
    I think there’s a place for letting the text people do their thing, and letting the TV and Radio and slideshow people do their thing with the story because multiple views of a single story serve it best of all.

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