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The Lego approach to storytelling

by: Amy Gahran |

June 02, 2011

The Lego approach to storytelling

The cutting room floor of journalism is a sad place: all those facts, interviews, asides, anecdotes, context, insights, and media gathered during reporting which, while relevant and interesting, just don’t fit comfortably into the narrative flow or length/time limits of the finished story.

This doesn’t merely represent wasted time and reporting effort. Many of those scraps are missed opportunities to engage readers and gain search visibility or links…

By Amy Gahran

Right now, most journalistic tools and processes (technological and otherwise) are focused on putting out one ultimate product: “the story,” which is a finished, edited, packaged piece of content with a narrative structure such as an article, video, audio piece, or photo gallery.

Stories are great—I write them, and I love them. But I mostly agree with Jeff Jarvis that articles have become a luxury or byproduct in today’s information ecosystem. Articles and other structured narratives take a lot of work to produce, and they involve a lot of waste. I think they’re worth doing, but they’re definitely not the only or best approach.

For a long time I’ve been considering how journalists and publishers can break out of the “story box” in order to gain more visibility and engagement from all parts of the reporting process—not just from the end product.

What would that look like? Right now, when a reporter is working on a big feature, she could publish a few compelling interview excerpts or photos as short posts while she’s assembling the narrative. Many reporters already do this with their blogs.

This can be one way to generate interest in the upcoming story. If that blog is part of the news site, then this technique also can prime your search visibility around the topic—which makes it more likely that your finished story will get even better search ranking when it finally drops.

Also, small discrete story modules work better for mobile users, who not only have smaller screens but also smaller chunks of available time and attention. A Legos-style story could be a more effective way to engage people’s attention on the device they have in hand.

Creating teasers and posting extras is technically simple to accomplish with existing editing and blogging tools—but it does take some extra effort, and it’s simply a different way of working. That alone is a show stopper for some journalists and editors, but many others have adapted to this approach.

Still, blogging and social media as they currently exist can only do so much.

Better tools needed

Existing content management and blogging tools tend to isolate story modules contextually and navigationally. That’s why we need better content management tools that are focused on supporting distributed, nonlinear collections of story modules. Right now, most content management tools focus mainly on the presentation of individual posts or stories.

We need tools that automate cross-linking between story modules, as well as much of the navigation and design that visually ties together collections of modules into a story. Simply generating an index page from a tag or category is not sufficiently engaging or usable.

Such a tool would turn your collection of story modules into an obvious mosaic, not scattered scraps or a dry list. It would present your content in a way that allows people entering a collection at any point, via any module (no matter how small), on any device, to easily find and explore other parts of that collection—and to see how they’re related.

Also each module would be individually linkable and shareable—yet another way for people to engage with your content.

I’m not talking about building some kind of complex app or immersive environment with a weird user interface. That’s unnecessary overhead, and it wouldn’t play nice with how people actually encounter content, especially via the web, social media, and search engines.

We need more content integration—not more content silos. Modular stories need to go where people already are.

So in a collection, individual story modules would still appear rather like the kinds of blog posts, online photos and videos, and other pieces of posted content we already encounter. You could find them through Google, for instance, or e-mail a friend a link to a specific module.

But within the web browser, each story module would include navigation and context indicating that it’s part of a bigger story or theme. This would make it easy and inviting to explore the wider story.

This strategy goes go beyond simply tagging or categorizing content. Those tools are good, but they tend to apply across an entire site, rather than define and support a subset of related content items in a site.

A good modular content management tool would make creating stories more like playing with Legos: journalists and editors could movie pieces around, add context and updates, and otherwise play with the content (perhaps in response to how people are using it), without disturbing the permalinks for each content piece and without having to rework all the navigation manually.

Right now, packaging digital content in this way (or even to create a conventional linear series of articles) takes a surprising amount of painstaking work. Most content packages and series are one-offs in terms of design, structure, and navigation—which is partly why this approach is underused.

Better packaging tools would help journalists tell extended, engaging stories in ways that are user friendly both for audiences and for content creators.

We’re starting to move in this direction, with curation-oriented, drag-and-drop storytelling tools like Storify and ScribbleLive. But the product of those tools is still mostly linear in form. Those tools are a good start, but thinking more flexibly about how we present stories could support the news business in new ways.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

By Amy Gahran, 06/02/11 at 5:35 pm


Great article, Amy.  We are pressing forward to add these sorts of capabilities to ScribbleLive.  Our new LiveArticle (http://www.screenr.com/njI) feature enables journalists to collaboratively create articles from individual posts in real time.  We are also adding expanded support for permalinks to individual posts to allow people to share and link to part of the story while maintaining the context of the story.  This is just part of our push in 2011 to give journalists a broad range of new capabilities to create and distribute news.  Thanks for the mention.

By Mark Walker, 06/03/11 at 6:03 am

Agree completely about nonlinear presentation and integrated content - narratives from all fields could benefit from a multi-dimensional model - Mozilla’s popcorn.js has some real potential here I think. I’ve also been inspired by Jonathan Harris’ http://sptnk.org in terms of cross-linking story/idea modules as data points. Great article - thanks.

By twendywendy, 06/03/11 at 11:01 am

I have been thinking about this same thing. I am a fan of little bits and pieces that can bring a user in to the overall topic. I thought Google might be on the right track when they were playing around in this space, but they stopped short.

By Gretchen, 06/08/11 at 1:01 pm

Amy Gahran

Amy Gahran is a journalist, editor, trainer, entrepreneur, strategist, and media consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to writing
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