In recent years, The New York Times has developed a multimedia obsession with the New York City Marathon.
In addition to the dozens of articles that appear in the newspaper and the online edition, NYTimes.com has featured:
- a month of pre-race blogging
- a live blog of the event as it happens
- user submitted photos of the event
- a time-lapse video map of the course
- photos and audio interviews with unique participants including a running juggler, an 11-year-old girl, a rabbi, and wheel-chair racer
- a tool to create a customized marathon training plan
- and hundreds of photos of runners grimacing, shouting, crying, and smiling as they cross the finish line.
Recently, I gave my undergraduate journalism students the list of links above and let them explore. I observed as they clicked, surfed, read, listened, and watched. Then we discussed the various storytelling formats and what lessons might be learned from the multimedia coverage of the marathon.
Here are a few interactive storytelling “take-aways” that emerged from our class discussion:
Winning Isn’t Everything
Of the 45,344 participants in the 2010 New York City Marathon, only a handful of professional men and women had a chance of winning. While it is amazing to watch someone cover 26.2 miles in a just over two hours, every runner has her or his own experience, motivation, and fan base. “Who won?” isn’t the only – or most compelling – story.
Consider the Angles
A marathon is a sports and human interest story. But as The New York Times demonstrates, it can be pursued in dozens of ways, including as a transportation, religion, immigration, or a science story.
Participatory Events Call for Participatory Coverage
At a marathon, everyone is involved – runners run, spectators cheer, and volunteers hand out water – so it makes sense that news coverage of an event would invite the audience to participate online as well.
Give the Online Audience a Front Row View
My students gravitated to one multimedia feature in particular: the Faces of the Finish slide shows.
In 2009, The New York Times photographed more than 400 runners as they crossed the finish line.
In 2010, the Times repeated the idea, this time with post-race portraits.
My students found this presentation the most intimate, vivid, and compelling. They felt like they were experiencing the event firsthand. “I could sit and look at this all day,” one student said.
Web Site Traffic Is Only One Measure of Success
After the class discussion, I contacted Andrew DeVigal, multimedia editor at The New York Times, to ask if all of the effort pays off.
“Why do it?” DeVigal wrote in an email. “Because I think its compelling visual journalism. The audience response has been positive. And I’m not sure about the traffic on this particular package. Luckily we’re not hung up on metrics. We don’t ignore them, mind you. But it’s not a reason not to try out a specific piece of compelling journalism.”