Snapchat’s new Memories feature is being pitched as a way to share old snaps and stories — but the real change is what it means for those creating and reporting stories in the tool. Now for the first time Snapchat users can create non-chronological sequences and stories using images or video that they have not taken themselves. Continue reading
In the first and second parts in this series I covered different types of stories and the different tools in Snapchat. In this extract from the ebook Snapchat for Journalists I cover narrative techniques in Snapchat, including the importance of variety and thinking about beginnings, middles and endings.
Snapchat Stories: variety is key
The best stories tend to mix both images and video, have more than one person, and employ a range of different techniques.
Just as you wouldn’t write a news story which employed a quote-quote-quote structure (you might instead choose fact-quote-background), stories are more engaging when you switch from one type of content to another.
One technique, for example, is to use a still image with a caption to introduce a speaker, before moving on to a video clip of that speaker. Continue reading
Here are a series of videos, audio slideshows and podcasts that demonstrate some key lessons in producing audio and video for the web – and how that is different from broadcast.
Here are a series of videos, audio slideshows and podcasts that demonstrate some key lessons in producing audio and video for the web – and how that is different from broadcast.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how narrative techniques are used within journalism to engage users and then keep them reading/listening/watching/clicking. By way of illustrating this, specifically with relation to audio, I wanted to blog in some detail about how narrative is used in a very good example I came across last month: a Freakonomics podcast.
… OK, done?
Right. These are great case studies for how podcasting uses three core principles of narrative:
- Setting, and
The two also illustrate different editorial demands: the Freakonomics podcast is a good example of exploring one issue in depth; while the Guardian podcast is about breadth: reacting to a number of current events and reporting across them.
I’m going to focus on the Freakonomics podcast because it uses the same basic techniques which are employed by Media Talk, but also some others beside. It’s also technically pretty straightforward.
That’s good because their approach also makes for good journalism, moving beyond the superficial to a deeper exploration and understanding – which is key when we talk about narrative.
Here’s how the Freakonomics podcast uses character, setting and movement particularly well to attract the listener and keep them listening:
The hook: a great introductory story
After an initial introduction by the presenters that gives us a feel for the show and their personalities (the first ‘setting’ and ‘characters’, if you like) we start with a story. It’s a story of people dying unnecessarily. It’s a good story – and it has characters, settings, and movement: a problem, a journey, and a resolution.
Why start with this story? Because it grabs the listener from the start, and it provides an immediate reward.
But it also sets up a tension, at around 5.40: why are we being told the story? What does it mean?
This is the first hook of the podcast.
Movement and relevance: bringing things up to date
We then change setting, moving to a recent story about modern medical hygiene.
The characters in this story are weaker (that’s probably why we started with the stronger story). But it has something the first doesn’t: a problem that affects us directly.
This is the central tension of the whole podcast – our second hook (at around 7’20, when the show theme and introduction is finally played). And we will have to wait until the end of the podcast for its resolution.
From the end of the beginning we move into the beginning of the middle. That central tension hanging in the air gives us a reason to listen to the end, but we also need continual movement within the middle period to keep us interested.
And so we move to a new story: the subplot, if you like (in this case, about financial literacy), which will, eventually come together with the initial story.
We hold on to find out how this tension between the two stories will be resolved.
Style and structure
Having looked at the over-arching structure of the podcast, I want to look more closely at how style is used to add extra interest to that.
Because there is a lot more to note about the telling of these stories.
A useful technique when looking at media production is to think about the choices that have been made by its producers. For example, you could tell these stories in any number of ways – handing over the narrative to an expert; narrating it yourself; reconstructing events dramatically.
But the producers make a choice in the first story which is worth analysing: they switch relatively frequently between interviews and narration.
The effect of this is to reinforce the listener’s sensation of movement: the narrative moves along quickly, and the contrast between voices creates a tension that helps maintain our interest.
Once the first interviewee’s story is established, we move to a second. Again, this adds to the sensation of movement, with a new character, and a change of setting.
Note that the speaker is introduced after they speak, introducing a brief period of tension as the listener wonders who this new voice is.
Also: under the sound of speakers, we sometimes hear music or other sounds. This helps establish the setting of the story they’re recounting. Something as simple as classical music (out of copyright, which is handy) can establish a period or a place. Generic comedic sounds can turn tragedy into comedy.
As the story moves into its middle phase, interviews become less narrated. At 9’20 we have a telephone interview. And instead of ‘cutting’ through narration, the style is more conversational, and the interviewee has more space to talk.
Interviewees are sometimes arranged in sequence so that their views are at odds. We have conflict. Put another way: having established the problem in the beginning, we are now introducing characters onto the stage to fight that problem out.
This helps solve one of the hardest problems in storytelling: the fat middle; how to get from the beginning to the end without losing interest.
In the Freakonomics example interest is also maintained in a number of ways other than conflict. One is the way the podcast introduces mini stories within the larger story (how the research was done; how a character discovered flawed claims – complete with ‘detective’ soundtrack); and a third is a mini-quiz (with a comedic/’countdown’/’game’ soundtrack to make it less dry).
The peak of the conflict comes with a hosted debate between two characters who hold different positions on the problem (flagged up as a “puzzle” in the lead-up, which again uses ‘debate’ music to establish the setting).
It’s worth listening to how the host prompts the debate and summarises positions, and when the characters get to speak directly to each other.
Even within the debate there is structure: we start with consensus before moving onto disrupting that, and a final consensus.
To host a debate like this you need to know people’s positions first and plan the debate around those.
The end phase
Having resolved that conflict, then, we move onto the beginning of the end.
And to signal that change, we have a change of setting too: we have an interviewee walking us through a hospital. The sounds are key to this, often recorded separately so they can be heard more clearly in the edit.
The end of the podcast uses a common technique in storytelling: returning to the start. The problem established in the beginning – hospital hygiene – and the problem established in the sub-plot – financial literacy – are both resolved with both final lessons and consensus, and at the same time, the question hanging in the air of “What do these stories have to do with each other?” is also resolved.
What’s more, the resolution has meaning beyond just a story: we have learned something.
Just to reinforce this, after that resolution comes a fade-out, rising title music, and credits. Small things that tell us definitively: The End.
Principles of narrative in a news podcast
But how do these techniques translate to a more traditional news podcast? The Guardian’s Media Talk podcast is, as I say, more about breadth than depth: a collection of short stories rather than a novel.
But it uses many of the same techniques at a smaller level. We begin with a table of contents, which serves to establish a little bit of tension, including teasing clips of tasty quotes.
We again have two voices (often both journalists) to tell a story instead of one, to introduce contrast and a little tension, and some structure of questioning that sets the scene before exploring more problematic issues, and ends by looking forward.
Each change of story is accompanied by an audio sting to signal that change of setting – and sometimes that change of setting occurs within the story – as when, for example, we move from an interview or report to the reaction to it.
The peak – two-thirds into the podcast – is the discussion where we move from hearing 2 voices to hearing 3.
So you can see the same techniques used, but in a much shorter space of time, and in a more routine manner. The format is more restrictive, but also allows for more effective production. It’s the right tool for the job.
Rounding it all up
That’s a lot to learn, so let me try to summarise these techniques that are used again and again:
- Firstly, think about establishing tension:
- through problems and questions;
- and through conflict and contrast.
- Secondly, think about movement:
- This is done through regularly resolving those tensions and establishing new ones (while keeping the main tension hanging until the end).
- And secondly, through moving from setting to setting.
- And thirdly, by having stories within your overarching story or stories (which is really the same as using tensions, but is worth identifying separately). Notice how narration is used frequently to move the story forward – mainly because there’s a lot of material to get through. Don’t add narration for the sake of it if your characters can move things along themselves just fine.
- Thirdly, note how audio is employed beyond the core content.
- Music is used to increase tension, describe character, establish setting, and even the genre of mini-stories.
- Silence and volume are equally important: a moment’s silence can indicate a change of pace or setting. A sudden rise in volume can indicate the end of a section.
- Finally, remember that all the above relies on those characters. It is the actions of characters that creates the movement; it is characters who introduce us to new settings. We need to hear those characters – and you need to find them.
Suggestions on building narrative into a podcast
Listening to those podcasts again with those points in mind, here are some suggestions on how you might plan to organise a podcast of your own on a single issue story:
- What’s the central tension you are going to introduce at the start and resolve at the end?
- Is there a secondary and related tension you can run alongside it and resolve simultaneously?
- What’s the best mini-story to begin with? End with?
- Who are your main characters? And when do they need to enter and leave the stage?
- What are your settings? And how might we move through them as the story develops?
- How can you maintain movement in your middle section? Do you have more mini-stories?
- What extra audio might you need to signal setting, character, genre or movement?
Any other examples or suggestions welcome.
Reuters has been among the leading news organizations in its use of Internet technology, both in its forays into citizen participation in the developed and developing worlds, and in experimenting with audio visual tools to offer fine narrative journalism.
Following the success of its online documentary on the Iraq war last year, Bearing Witness, Reuters recently produced another interactive multimedia time line, this one elucidating on the impact of the current financial crisis.
In Bearing Witness, the agency brought together five years of reporting from 100 correspondents and photographers to give a comprehensive account of significant events that transpired during half a decade of the war, from reasons that led to the conflict, recounts of battles in various Iraqi cities from Baghdad to Fallujah, the army offensive led by the US and its allies, and political, economic, and social consequences. In addition to offering personal accounts from its reporters, the project illustrates numbers and statistics through elaborate infographics.
The Times of Crisis project offers a peak into the impact of the current financial disaster over the course of a year since it was first set off by the collapse of Lehman Brothers. It is a compelling narrative not only in terms of its rich multimedia interactivity, but also in what it brings in terms of the human face of the impact, providing anecdotes and stories from real people.
I recently got a chance to interview Jassim Ahmad, Head of Visual Projects at Reuters, over e-mail. Below is the exchange:
Q. What inspired Reuters to do this? What was your main motive behind the two projects?
We were first inspired to produce Bearing Witness to mark half a decade of war in Iraq – a story to which Reuters has dedicated a team of 100 correspondents, photographers, cameramen and editorial support staff. The conflict has been the most dangerous in history for the press. 139 journalists and 51 media support staff have been killed (latest figures from CPJ) including seven Reuters colleagues. Our ambition was to go much further than simply repackage our coverage. We sought to tell the wider story through reflection and behind the scenes perspectives of conflict reporting.
Bearing Witness received exceptionally positive feedback and picked up a string of awards in the US, UK, France and Italy. We chose the financial crisis for our next initiative – undoubtedly one of the biggest stories of our times and one which Reuters is able to tell with exceptional depth with its financial expertise. Whereas most news coverage has understandably focused on the local and regional effects of the crisis, ours would attempt to show its global significance.
Chronology is the natural backbone of a wire news agency. We wanted to re-imagine the classical news “time line” with a much more visual approach.
Q. As someone that coordinates such visual projects, I was wondering if you could shed some light on how a story is approached differently for multimedia vs. text. Is there a different philosophy when a journalist has to let pictures and videos tell a story without getting in the way of it?
There is no one multimedia model. We try to embark upon each project with fresh eyes. Each subject determines its own mix of special reporting, research and interactive design. Unlike automated feed and search-based approaches, we would manually curate the story for quality and cohesion. Through 15 streams of information spanning news, visuals and data, we carefully pieced together this puzzle into a single fluid narrative – putting the story in its total cross-media context in a way only multimedia can achieve.
Q. Do you feel that these sorts of multimedia projects afford people deep, contextual knowledge without them having to go through 20 odd pages of print to get the same breadth of detail? In other words, can this sort of journalism replace traditional reported pieces?
Photography in particular is unparalleled at conveying information with power and immediacy. We would weave together stories, pictures, video, graphics and data so that each piece of information advances the story within an immersive mixed-media experience. This accessible framework would deliver both immediate impact and greater depth for those that sought it.
There are different degrees of production and in-depth multimedia is not a replacement for existing forms of journalism. However, for the appropriate subject, it can deliver unequalled emotion, clarity and understanding.
Q. In countries and regions where high-speed Internet is still not very prevalent and where broadband is not accessible, could such stories pose limits on readership, as they tend to be time consuming and extensive? Is that a problem?
Lack of broadband connectivity is a barrier for many, but multimedia need not always equate to bandwidth-intensive video. Our interactive visual timeline is a case in point. I would argue that language and complete lack of connectivity for many are greater barriers. That said, rebranded editions of Times of Crisis were simultaneously launched on client web sites from Australia to France, Germany to the Gulf. Whereas Reuters content traditionally feeds into our clients’ products, this shows how we can be end-producers for our clients on stories with global resonance.
Q. Despite the effectiveness of such multimedia projects, why do you think more mainstream organizations are not doing these types of stories? Did Reuters encounter any resistance when you embarked on these initiatives?
Rich multimedia demands editorial time and creative resources, as does all special coverage. For those willing to invest in production, the reward is compelling, distinctive site-building content. Finding new ways to engage audiences has to be a key step towards securing new streams of revenue.
Reuters has the advantage of a truly global presence and teams working in every medium. We continue to use this basis to explore new approaches to information gathering, visualisation and interactivity to evolve storytelling.