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.”

Using “One in 8 Million” in the Classroom

This past semester, I integrated the NYTimes.com multimedia series One in 8 Million: New York Characters in Sound and Images into the regular routine of my Online Journalism II course.

When we started the semester, most of the students had limited experience recording and editing audio. Most had not taken a photojournalism course. And it was my first time trying to teach students each step of creating an audio slide show: how to record an interview, gather natural and ambient sound, take photographs, and then edit it all into a coherent story.dixonimg

I found One in 8 Million to be a great learning tool for all of us. It is a series of personal profiles presented as two-minute audio slide shows with photographs by Todd Heisler.

The subjects are characters, often with quirky jobs, backgrounds, and stories to tell. There is a profile of an urban taxidermist, a bus-depot barber, a mozzarella cheese maker, a singing waitress, and a maid who has cleaned up after four different mayors at Gracie Mansion.

The story index even gives the visual sense that the viewer is standing on a subway platform and the faces of the people appear in the subway car windows as it pulls into the station.

I did not plan out how I would use the material before the semester began. I stumbled upon a routine as we went along.

I often began class by shutting off the lights and showing the latest profile on a big projector screen. We would watch the profile and then discuss it for several minutes. Then we would watch it again and discuss it a bit more.

Then I would turn off the projector and we would just listen to the sound. We talked about why the producer might have put the sound of the cash register at that exact spot or why a specific anecdote had been included.

grajalesimgjpgThen I muted the sound and we watched it again. I asked students to pay attention to the composition, as well as the content of the photographs. “Why did the photographer focus on a person’s hand or a religious icon?” we wondered. “Why were the images arranged in that specific order?”

This process usually took about 20 minutes.

Basically, we broke down the audio slide show into its smallest parts – and we tried to figure out how the producers put it all together to make a unified whole.

We spent a lot of class time learning the technical aspects of audio and photography — and how to convert the files into the proper format. One in 8 Million helped us the focus on the storytelling.

I also stuck with the series because I like how the stories are presented.

  • The profiles are often of “everyday” people – a store owner, a guy with the cool sneakers, a teenage mom – that we routinely pass by on the way to cover a “real” news story.
  • The subject herself tells the story. The audience doesn’t hear the reporter’s voice, narration, or questions. There is no moral or kicker at the end saying what it means.
  • The person’s story is the story. There isn’t a news peg, just an interesting person with something to say.

The highlight of the experiment came near the end of the semester as the students scrambled to complete their audio slide shows. I arranged a live video chat (using Google chats, nothing fancy) with Joshua Brustein, an interactive producer at NYTimes.com. Josh answered student questions about the profiles he produced, how he found a specific person, and how he approached the interviews.

Here are two examples of Josh’s work: Paul Bockwaldt, who joined a predominantly gay rugby team to bond with his brother and Ra Ruiz, a former Christopher Street pier kid.

When Josh said he usually spent 10 hours collecting and editing audio for a two minute piece, the students were stunned. But they also seemed inspired that they were attempting to do similar work.