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Photo-illustration of animal renderings on the walls of Lascaux caves with digitized cursors.

Once Upon a Time… in Journalism

Humans like to be told stories, and some stories like to be told visually, experientially, and uniquely.

Storytelling is a ubiquitous term in our culture, a pan-industry buzzword used to conjure anything from twee ad campaigns to gritty screenplays, relatable political outreach to resonant journalism. To tell stories is to imbibe the heart and humanity of individuals or whole communities into messages, facts, or data, so that we, the audience—who also happen to be human, (mostly)—can relate, empathize, and thus understand. Maybe even be called to action.

The power of storytelling explains why my 10-year-old daughter absolutely lives for the 2 weeks she spends at summer camp engaged in (foam) sword fighting, and yet she wholeheartedly rejects the opportunity for year-round, weekly fencing lessons. The fencing class doesn’t graft fantastic fables of Greek, Roman, or Hindi mythology onto the sword-wielding, which her summer camp does. In this metaphor, swords are the ‘facts’ and the premise of her camp weaving storytelling onto those facts adds humanity and drama and brings them to life.

Storytelling describes the dwindling effect climate change has had on monarch butterfly populations, the epidemic of orphaned children as tragic fallout from the opioid crisis, the fact that Elizabeth Warren always wanted to be a school teacher, probably every Superbowl ad, ever, and The Odyssey. A phrase that’s synonymous with entertainment, and also fibbing, spinning a yarn, mythology and fables—and yet which also describes the practice of imbuing factual reporting with real, impacted lives, as in the case with journalism—the term might be worth a rethink in our embattled industry’s fight for legitimacy. But whatever we call it, audiences need stories in reportage for relatability, empathy, and action.

So what does all of this have to do with design?

Journalism needs stories, and oftentimes our stories need to be visual, experiential, even handcrafted into presentations germane to their purpose. Publishers and audiences want—indeed need—expressive interactions to fully and effectively exchange in ideas. To radically engage, journalism needs to be able to tell and show—because facts matter (like, if we want to save the planet, maybe)—and truths aren’t always best told through rich-text (although hopefully it suffices for this particular narrative).

Homo sapiens have been getting visual to convey vital information since we hung out in caves. The proto-whiteboards of our primitive ancestors, such as those discovered in Lascaux and Chauvet Caves, among others, reveal early diagrammatic renderings believed by scholars to be quite sophisticated, if sometimes fantastical, image-based communications. Not merely beautiful artwork (although they are exquisite, especially if you love animals,) these drawings are thought by some scholars to have conveyed tales of hunting successes and failures, a telling of an actual volcano eruption, animal matings, and also some ritualistic, hallucinatory stuff, adding a magical aspect to the depictions.

Visual and interactive experiences can be vital for engagement with and comprehension of information. Whether or not one subscribes to the adage “show, don’t tell” (a cursory Google search suggests not all writers do,) some stories demand to be shown, or to be heard, to be illustrated, or experienced as a quiz, or to unfold temporally, to animate through time-lapse photography, to dance between words and images, or to invite us to draw our blind guess of a data pattern over top of the actual charted data to reveal a striking comparison—to educate and inform beyond the written word.

“...our smart phones offer us the ability to hold an entire story in the palm of our hand...”
—Nilay Patel, The Verge

This isn’t just a matter of “a picture tells a thousand words”. Ever-evolving digital platforms through which we now consume content can foster innovation and redefine the role journalism’s stories play in our lives. Inside of a decade, we’ve seen rapid change in how we are exposed to and engage with content, and the methods through which we gather and share content have changed at pace. Even as the format of a ‘webpage’ is rooted in the print vernacular, mobile, AR, VR, and other emergent platforms offer the opportunity to push the organizing principle of content delivery beyond the page, and if “our smart phones offer us the ability to hold an entire story in the palm of our hand”, as Nilay Patel, Editor in Chief of The Verge puts it, the frontier is still wide open as to how publishers can explore these possibilities and how audiences may adopt them.

Content management systems (CMS) importantly get us far along toward the democratization of good content design by placing well-thought-out user experiences and visual expression at the fingertips of editors and reporters. Article templates allow for the formatting of clean (or good-chaotic), hierarchical, semantic, accessible content—ideally with a bento-box-like framework for versatility, versus a singular cookie-cutter approach—and solve for consistency in user-experience. But equally important for storytelling teams is to know when to approach a story solution with a blank-slate. Opening up a canvas to blue-sky exploration can take us further toward true story experience innovation.

Animated illustration of the first McDonalds in Los Angeles in the Googie architectural style
Animated illustration of the first McDonalds in Los Angeles on Curbed
Illustration by Alexander Vidal with Alyssa Nassner and Miriam Nadler

Curbed’s custom The Ultimate Guide to Googie takes a sideways traverse through animated vector illustrations of L.A.’s funky mid-century architectural style. The Verge’s custom Thunderheads makes possible scroll-triggered scrubbing through atmospheric videos of cloud patterns, as scientists study the heavens for clues to climate change. The delight and uniqueness of these stories isn’t within a platform, but comes out of creative, incredibly hard-working, collaborative teams leveraging content-specific details to create a tailored experience. In early development and testing, Chorus’ custom storytelling platform aims to offer enough data structuring to allow teams to employ streamlined content-entry, search engine optimization, and, eventually, 3rd party platform extensibility (let’s definitely come back to that topic in a future blog post), and otherwise aims to stay out of the way of dictating story presentation.

A story design sandbox (ideally one that can extend the lawful-good structure of content management, like Chorus!) offers storytelling teams freedom and space for story-shaped trials and errors—from micro experiments to expansive re-imaginings—and is how we’ll discover impactful new paradigms and future repeatable patterns to codify back into our core publishing platform. A virtuous lifecycle of storytelling design includes acknowledging the importance that template standardization serves in the role of publishers and content consumers alike, while also recognizing that a path to innovation is through necessary investment in bespoke trial-balloon story designs that can be small and incremental. At the very least, storytelling teams learn something new with each experiment, and at best we lay some groundwork to arrive upon discovery of a new pattern to be absorbed by our publishing platform, and maybe our entire industry.

Photo is licensed through Creative Commons 2.0, it was modified with color-brightening and collaged cursor illustrations by Renato Silvia via The Noun Project.

Thanks to Katie Kovalcin and Phil Delbourgo for their thoughtful editing.