Extreme storytelling

Go right now to see Jonathan Harris’ experiment in storytelling: an Alaskan whale hunt. Jonathan took photos at least every 5 minutes for the week of the tale, which itself is a unique means of using the camera to capture the story, freeze-drying moments instead of memories. Then he returned and created a stunning interface to display his 3,214 photos — many of them stunning — enabling you to explore by time, by image, by adrenalin (how many photos he took in a given scene, mimicking his heartbeat), by characters, and by concept tags (for example, blood). I dabbled at first, poking my head into the story here and there, randomly or by tags. But then I had to watch the whole thing. So I recommend heartily that you go over and explore yourself.

The Whale Hunt

I haven’t decided yet what I think about the form. There’s no question that it is compelling, engrossing, informative, entertaining, beautiful. It’s an unqualified success. What I don’t know is how this translates — or should translate — into other stories. Newspaper online sites tend to use slideshows too much, just because the internet lets them. I have no doubt that Jonathan’s work will spread around that world and photo editors and online producers everywhere will trip over themselves to mimic it. My son Jake suggests that Jonathan open this up as a platform.

But this was a special story, an extreme story; that’s one reason why Jonathan picked it. He says in his statement that he wanted an “epic personal experience” to translate onto the internet. He also wanted to mimic the cadence of computers gathering and displaying data, since he forces them to do that with his online work. “I was interested in reaching some degree of empathy with the computer, a constant thankless helper in my work,” he says, which may be going an inch too far, but I think what he means is that this will give him an even better understanding of how machines can help tell stories.

What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that what others should learn and copy from this is not the form but the motive: the effort to innovate, to find stories that demand experimentation. Please don’t give us 3,214 photos from the frozen north of New Hampshire during the primary. Please don’t. But do think about what new ways stories can be told now that we no longer are forced to choose one medium or another.

An everyday view:

So far, video is being used online mostly to tell a complete story: here’s the story in text, there’s the story in video (or there’s a slideshow or a podcast or a Flash thingie). The video is almost always a packaged piece, self-standing. It wants to be television. In some cases, that’s fine. But there is no reason that video could not be used, as photos are in print, as part of the narrative, as moving pictures. I began to learn that on Prezvid, where the videos are very much the heart of the story and our text is merely commentary or context. So you could start with a paragraph of text and then comes video to illustrate or report a point and that video need not be a produced piece but could merely be a snippet that demonstrates a point better than words can (rather than saying the candidate was angry, you can show her anger and let her be heard). And then comes more text, then a photo, then a graphic, then text, with links and updates and corrections and tags throughout. Ideally, each element can have a permalink so others may link and add to the story; each element can also expose links and commentary from others if you want. You get the idea: a story need not be a galley of type or a packaged sequence of images. It can be an appropriate mix of both now.

This, in turn, has an impact on the story gathering, which I see as the real the point of Jonathan’s exercise. At a more mundane level, this is why I want to see reporters take video cameras with them as notebooks (as my friend Michael Rosenblum says) so they can capture and share that moment of the angry candidate. That is different from them setting out to tell a story in video; then the appropriate use of the tool is more focused, more about gathering the story selectively. It depends on the story and how you want to tell it and how your public can best use and interact with it.

This is why I shake my head when I hear journalists complain that making them take video or photos or audio is forcing them to do extra work, to tell the story more than once. No, it is about gathering the means to tell the story in any appropriate medium, mixing those media in one narrative, because we finally can. That is why, at CUNY, we insist on teaching all these tools to everyone.

And that’s why I admire Jonathan’s spirit of experimentation. I was lucky to work with him at the start of Daylife, where I marveled at his genius for mixing news gathering, data, analysis, media, presentation, interface, and programming. He could do it all and do it all brilliantly. His other experiments include 10×10, We Feel Fine, and Universe.

The online news business thinks it needs more Adrian Holovatys, and well it does, for he understands how data and news can become one. It also needs more Jonathan Harrises, who understand how newsgathering and narrative can change. It needs to find ways to support their talents and learn from it. (Hint: The Knight Foundation gave Holovaty a grant to start a new data-news company. I’d give Harris commissions to find new ways to find and tell stories.) But first, go watch the hunt.