A Multimedia Storytelling Lexicon

What is multimedia storytelling?

It’s more than just a combination of text, photos, audio, video and graphics. Stories are fashioned through narrative structures, devices and techniques designed to draw the audience into the characters and events.

Inspired by the writing coach Jack Hart, who created “A Storyteller’s Lexicon” for The Oregonian newsroom, I decided to write out a multimedia storytelling vocabulary and some examples of how various news projects employ them.

Here are some of the common approaches and elements found in engaging multimedia news stories.

Anecdote – A personal account of a series of actions.
Example: Julio Diaz shares his experience of being robbed in a surprising, two-minute anecdote. (StoryCorps.org audio)

Character – An individual who undergoes change or takes action.
Example: Photographer Luis Sinco goes beyond the iconic image of the “Marlboro Marine” and takes the viewer on an intimate journey into the soldier’s emotional and psychological struggles. (MediaStorm.com audio slide show)

Complication – An event or development that forces a character to respond or react.
Example: When the Gulf Oil spill hits the small town of Venice, Louisiana, the residents must decide whether to stay or leave. (News21.com video)

Contiguity – How all of the media elements on a page or website work together. The best multimedia pieces combine text and visuals in meaningful ways and avoid extraneous elements.
Example: The Highrise Project is a series of interactive documentaries about urban residential buildings that pays particular attention to the integration of text, images, video, sound, design and animation. (National Film Board of Canada interactive documentary)

Curate – Gathering, sourcing, verifying and redistributing information or social media elements to track an event.
Example: Andrew Carvin uses Twitter to cover major international events. (NPR social media)

Data Story – An application that allows users to search and access data a variety of ways.
Example: The Dollar for Docs news application lets readers search pharmaceutical company payments to doctors. (ProPublica database)

Detail – Distinct observations, facts or moments included for the purpose of conveying character or plot.
Example: This story of the world’s largest religious festival in India is told through intimate snapshots of the spiritual pilgrims. (Bombay Flying Club)

Dialogue – Conversation between two or more characters that allows the audience to see and hear characters interacting with one another.
Example: The back-and-forth between two adult daughters and their father who has Alzheimer’s disease helps provide insight into a family’s struggle to hang on to memories. (StoryCorps audio and photo)

Dramatic question – An overarching question posed at the beginning of a story; audience wonders how it will end.
Example: An award-winning 2007 article by columnist Gene Weingarten starts with a question, “If the world’s great violinist performed incognito in a Metro station, would anyone stop and listen?” (Washington Post article and video)


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Using Narrative Nonfiction to Teach Multimedia Storytelling

This semester, I am trying something new in my advanced multimedia journalism course. In addition to studying examples of interactive journalism, completing a series of online trainings and tutorials, and conducting their own multimedia reporting assignments, my students will be reading Susan Orlean.

I selected Orlean’s book Saturday Night, which was first published in 1990 and was reissued this year, as one of the primary texts. Saturday Night is a collection of magazine-style feature articles that start with the question, “What makes Saturday night so special?” In her attempt to answer that question, Orlean travels the county and cruises in muscle cars in Indiana, polka dances with seniors in Maryland, interviews homeless people on the Lower East Side, and spends the night in a missile silo in Wyoming.

So what does The New Yorker-style narrative nonfiction have to do with multimedia journalism?

I’m planning to use the book in several ways to help students explore aspects of digital storytelling.

Finding Stories
Most of the subjects in Saturday Night are pretty ordinary, but Orlean’s eye for detail and skillful prose creates wonderfully vivid portraits of everyday life. My students’ assignments will have a similar goal: to find surprising and compelling stories about people and events that rarely make the news.

Insight into the Reporting Process
Orlean is a rigorous reporter and researcher, even when she is writing about a waitress or a babysitter. Also Orlean’s use of the first person provides occasional glimpses into her own process and how she interacts with subjects. My students are always wanting to know how a reporter finds a particular story or conducts herself when she’s doing a story.

Narrative Structure and Techniques
When I think back on own journalism education experience – in a time before the term “multimedia reporting” was invented – I learned the most about the art of storytelling in my magazine writing classes. We studied writers like John Hersey, Gay Talese, Jimmy Breslin, Joan Dideon, Calvin Trillin and Lillian Ross. We learned how to structure a story, set a scene, select the most telling details, and incorporate quotes and dialogue. I’m hoping to bring a feature writing sensibility to the students’ practice of multimedia journalism.

Understanding Multimedia
My students’ assignments incorporate text, photos, audio and video. A key challenge is understanding when to use a particular medium to tell the story in the most engaging way. I have created several exercises in which students will brainstorm how they might translate one of Orlean’s profiles for the digital age. We will storyboard an article and discuss how it might be presented as an interactive feature on the web. Students will apply those concepts to their own work.

A Source of Inspiration (I hope)
This is an experiment. I know that many of the techniques of magazine writing do not translate to gathering audio or shooting video. Students will have three minutes to present a story, not 5,000 words. And many of the cultural references in Saturday Night are dated (i.e., in the future “people will eventually work from their homes via computer workstations and modem hookups.”) However, I’m hopeful that a book like Saturday Night is still capable of inspiring the next generation of journalists.

At the end of the semester, I’ll post an update of what I learn.

Three Resources for Exploring the Narrative Structures of Digital Journalism

The standard conventions of print news writing are tried and tested. The narrative structures of digital and multimedia journalism are less so.

“That’s why innovation in a newsroom isn’t just learning how to shoot and embed video or using Twitter to cover a live event,” Ronald Yaros wrote in American Journalism Review. “Innovation must also include developing, testing, and using new story techniques that keep audiences engaged.”

To better understand and teach multimedia storytelling, I’ve been hunting for narrative metaphors and structures for online news.

Here are three resources on the subject that I have found useful:

Alternate Story Forms

Alternate story forms break down information by theme and organize stories into chunks that can be scanned and understood easily by readers. Suitable for the web and often for newspapers and magazines, alternate story forms include:

  • Q&As
  • f.a.q.s
  • glossaries
  • checklists
  • timelines
  • quizzes
  • games

A Poynter News University online course on alternate story forms, developed by Andy Bechtel of the University of North Carolina, is a great resource for exploring the topic and learning which stories work best for which formats.

The online course itself is a nice example of the use of alternate story forms. It employs tightly written text boxes, interactive exercises, and animation. And it that allows the user to explore the information in a non-linear manner.

PICK Model for Online News

Multimedia is often defined as the use of various elements: text, audio,  photos, video, graphics, and animation. But a group of researchers at University of Maryland define multimedia journalism as a cohesive experience.

They analyze how a webpage or website combines media to create a narrative environment for the user.

To explain their findings, researchers developed the P.I.C.K. model. It focuses on:

  • Personalization – How content in a multimedia story relates to the user’s needs and interests.
  • Involvement – The degree to which technology enables users to participate with choices, responses or content.
  • Contiguity – How text, words, graphics, and animation are presented together.
  • Kick-outs – Minimizing anything that competes with the users’ attention and compels them to go elsewhere.

The goal is to move beyond simply throwing together text and video and understanding how everything works together. One finding is that text is still key in explaining how all of the story elements relate to one another.

Journalism in the Age of Data

Data visualization is the display of complex information through graphics and animation. It has become a standard way to display election results, geographic locations, and complex statistical or financial data.

A great resource for exploring the subject is Journalism in the Age of Data, a video report and website created by Geoff McGhee. It includes interviews with journalists at the New York Times, MSNBC, and BBC, examples of how newsrooms are collaborating on projects, and websites for beginners like ManyEyes and Flare.

It also presents an overview of the research of Edward Segel and Jeffrey Heer from Stanford University, who study the narrative structures of online news data visualizations. Their research analyzes dozens of examples currently employed by online news organizations and looks for common narrative devices and story elements.

They identify seven basic narrative genres in data visualization:

  • magazine style
  • annotated chart
  • partitioned poster
  • flow chart
  • comic strip
  • slide show
  • film/video/animation

They also describe how newsrooms are adopting the storytelling techniques of film, graphic design, animation, and video games to cover the news.

The Building Blocks of a Multimedia Story

You have pages of notes, hundreds of photos, and hours of audio and video. Now what?

Turning raw material into a cohesive and compelling story is the main challenge for a multimedia journalist. Often we have a sense that there is a story buried in there somewhere if we can just locate the essential elements and fashion them in narrative. As a teacher, I’m always looking for ways to help my students identify the building blocks of a story.

Here is some simple, yet effective, advice on how to structure a story from three  storytellers and educators:

“Anecdote and Moment of Reflection”

Ira Glass, the producer of the radio and television documentary show This American Life, says that every great audio or video story has two elements: an anecdote and a moment of reflection.

An anecdote is the sequence of actions that builds the momentum and raises questions to be answered. Stringing together a series of actions (this happens, and then this happens) makes the audience feel that they are moving toward a destination.

A moment of reflection is the point when someone clearly says, “here is the point of the story.”

Often a reporter will have one of the two elements, Glass says, but both are needed;

Your job to be ruthless and to understand that either you don’t have a sequence of actions that works or you don’t have a moment of reflection. And you are going to need both. In a good story you are going to flip back between the two… and that is the trick of the whole thing is to have the perseverance that if you have an interesting anecdote that you also can end up with an interesting moment of reflection that can support it…and that together it will add up to something that is more than the sum of its parts.

“Find the Arc of the Story”

Like a feature film or a book of fiction, a short piece of multimedia journalism can still have a story arc with a clear beginning, middle and end.

Mindy McAdams, who teaches online journalism at the University of Florida, says that the first question a reporter should ask when creating a multimedia piece like an audio slide show is “what do you intend to communicate?”

McAdams writes:

This might be the most common mistake that journalists make: Often we give little or no thought to this question and its answer. Much of the time, we go out and cover an event, and then our (text) story is simply what happened and who was there. In the time-honored tradition of humans telling stories to one another, this is at the low end of the scale — unless the event was, say, the Battle of Troy (which was rather more exciting than the average charity fund-raiser).

Once the reporter knows what she wants to communicate with the story, McAdams suggests finding the opening and closing of the story. A strong and clear beginning is essential to hook the audience. Then a piece should make a direct track toward the conclusion with the ending clearly in mind.

On endings, McAdams writes:

A solid, satisfying ending has two parts. They can be called the climax and the resolution, and even though that sounds a bit overblown for a two-minute story. I think you’ll tell a better story if you think of the ending in those terms. The climax is the destination, the place you’re taking the audience, in a straight line from the opening. It will come near the end of the story, but afterward, you also need to provide closure. Make it feel complete. That’s the resolution.

“Someone Does Something Because”

The Common Language Project is a nonprofit multimedia journalism organization that focuses on international reporting and journalism education. In one of its tutorials, Sarah Stuteville of CLP urges reporters to frame their stories as “someone does something because.”

For example, she writes;

Think of your story as someone does something because.  You should always be able to sum it up in that skeleton, fleshing it out as your story develops:
• Some guy starts a school in India because it’s a good thing to do.
• Sam Singh starts a school in India because he’s from there and wants to help the community.
• Sam Singh, a retired top executive for Dupont Corporation, founds a revolutionary vocational school for girls in rural India because he sees the need for development in rural communities in a country where the elite and the ‘technological class’ are moving fast and growing rapidly, often leaving the people – and potential – of rural communities behind.

In other words, the story should have character(s), action, and a motivation for those actions.

And the difference between a series of sound bites and a real story is the combination of all these elements.

For more on Sam Singh and the school see NPR’s recent multimedia story in photos, audio, maps, and text.

Online Journalism Courses – Spring 2011

Let the fun begin…

Online Journalism I (Spring 2011)
-Download Online Journalism I syllabus (pdf)
-Link to Online Journalism I class blog with assignments, tutorials, schedule, student work, and lecture notes

Online Journalism 2 (Spring 2011)
-Download Online Journalism 2 syllabus (pdf)
-Link to the Online Journalism II class blog with assignments, tutorials, schedule, and lecture notes

NYC Marathon Has 45,344 Multimedia Story Possibilities

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:

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.”

Multimedia Journalism Tutorials – Updated List

Here is the list of online classes, instructional videos, and handouts that I am using in my multimedia reporting workshop (officially titled Online Journalism 2) at Rowan University this fall.

Tutorial 1: Finding a Good Story and Telling It
Listen to This American Life’s “Rest Stop Episode”
Watch Ira Glass talk about the elements of storytelling on YouTube (Parts 1-4)
Part 1 – The Building Blocks of a Story
Part 2 – On Finding Great Stories
Part 3 – On Good Taste
Part 4 – Two Common Pitfalls

Tutorial 2: Reporting Across Platforms (NewsU course)

Tutorial 3: Audio Interviews
Read Interviewing 101: A quick and dirty guide to getting the scoop (CLP)
Read Audio 101: A quick and dirty guide to recording your story (CLP)
Read Gathering Audio by Brian Storm (MediaStorm)

Tutorial 4: Telling Stories with Sound (NewsU course)

Tutorial 5: Audio Editing
Watch “How to Convert Audio Files Using Switch”

Garage Band (Mac)
Watch video overview  Garage Band Basics for Journalists
Then read though GarageBand Podcast Setup and Overview for detailed instructions.

Audacity (PC and Mac)
Watch video overview Audacity Basics for Journalists
Superfast Guide to Audio Editing (pdf) – includes instructions for installing Audacity on your home computer. (Mindy McAdams)
Editing Audio with Audacity (Part 2) (pdf) – more detailed instructions (Mindy McAdams)
How to Use Audacity (Knight Digital Media Center)

Tutorial 6: Photo 101 and Photoshop 101
Read Photojournalism 101: A quick and dirty guide to photographing your story (CLP) and watch How to Resize and Save Photos for the Web

Tutorial 7: Language of the Image (NewsU course)

Tutorial 8: Soundslides How To
Watch A Quick Tour of Soundslides
If you have questions, review How to Use Soundslides (Knight Digital Media Center)

Tutorial 9: How to Improve Your Audio Slide Shows
Read How to Make Your Audio Slide Shows Better by Colin Mulvany
Read Mark Luckie’s Five Common Photo Slide Show Mistakes
Read Mindy McAdam’s Tell a Good Story with Images and Sound
Read Mindy McAdam’s Do’s and Don’ts for Slide Shows

Tutorial 10: How to Ebed a Soundslides Slide Show on WordPress

Tutorial 11: Video Storytelling for the Web (NewsU course)

Tutorial 12: iMovie
iMovie for Journalists (Knight Digital Media Center)
iMovie 09 Tutorials (Apple)

Teaching Audio Slide Shows and Soundslides


The audio slide show – a multimedia piece that combines audio and still photos – is a standard format in most newsrooms and journalism classrooms. And Soundslides, a program created by Joe Weiss, is the standard program used to create them.

Soundslides is so easy to use that it does not require hours of step-by-step tutorials. However, after a few semesters of teaching audio slide shows, I have collected a list of resources that I have found helpful for introducing and troubleshooting the process for beginners.

Examples of Inspiring Audio Slide Shows

For examples of great audio slide shows, I often turn to Interactive Narratives, a clearinghouse for the best of online visual storytelling. The audio slide show can also be a powerful way to profile individuals. For examples of audio slide show profiles, I like the New York Times series One in 8 Million and the Los Angeles Times series pop.u.LA.tion.

When Is an Audio Slide Show the Best Format for a Story?

NewsUniversity has an online course called Five Steps to Multimedia Storytelling. It aims to teach which stories are more suitable for multimedia.

To understand the power – and limits – of an audio slide show, read a Poynter interview with Sounslides creator Joe Weiss. He discusses the potential and some common pitfalls of the format.

Also on the BBC’s College of Journalism blog, Kevin Marsh ponders the question: “Why would you choose a slide show when you could use video?”

How to Use Soundslides

The Soundslides user manual is the place to begin when teaching or trying the program for the first time.

Jeremy Rues has created a nice step-by-step Soundslides tutorial for the Knight Digital Media Center.

Here is a PowerPoint presentation I use to introduce audio slide shows and SoundSlides in the classroom.

Here is the step-by-step instructions I give students for creating an audio slideshow in SoundSlides and coverting it to video file so it can be posted on a blog (in .pdf format).

Also I’ve created a screencast video on how to embed a Soundslides slide show on a self-hosted WordPress blog. This is one of the most common questions I get from students, especially after my class has ended and they are doing their own independent projects.

Tips for Creating a Better Audio Slide Show

To avoid common mistakes, read the post How to Make Your Audio Slide Shows Better by Colin Mulvany.

Mark Luckie lists Five Common Photo Slide Show Mistakes.

Mindy McAdams has two great blog posts on the subject: Tell a Good Story with Images and Sound and Do’s and Don’ts for Slide Shows.

Soundslides Tools

On the Soundslides forum, you can read through questions and issues others have encountered and post your own questions. (I posted a message about a bug last week, and I received a reply within a few hours.)

Soundslides Embed Utility – This tool allows you to post your published slide shows to a blog, or embed them in other pages.

Soundslides Video Converter – This tool converts audio slide shows into an mp4 video file. That way they can placed on sites like YouTube and Vimeo, embedded on free WordPress.com blogs, or viewable on an iPod.

Resources for Teaching Digital Journalism

A lot of resources on teaching interactive journalism have been circulating around the Web recently. Here are some I found valuable:

Multimedia Standards, a University of Miami class project on multimedia journalism standards

John Temple blogs the MediaStorm Methodology Workshop (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5) and post-workshop reflection Ten steps news organizations should take to embrace a multimedia future.

Archived Chat: How Do You Involve Students in Multimedia Rather Than Just Teach It? (Poynter)

How to Use Digital Story Telling in the Classroom (Edutopia)

Video Tutorials from University of Oklahoma’s Journalism School
-Tutorials for Adobe products (Photoshop, InDesign, Flash, Illustrator, etc)
-Tutorials for Multimedia Journalism course
-Tutorials for Interactive Multimedia Design course

Handout on Multimedia Storytelling from Steve Buttry, Gazette Communications

Also Mark Luckie of 10000words.net has a book called “The Digital Journalist’s Handbook” due out in September.