Transmedia journalism expands storytelling for deeper impact

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A man stands among wreckage and debris after an earthquake and tsunami devastated a city on the northeastern coast of Japan in March 2011. Since the magnitude and scope of the natural disaster was very similar to the earthquake predicted for Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, OPB sent a production team to Japan to report on the damage. (Photo: Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock, DVIDS)

A man stands among wreckage and debris after an earthquake and tsunami devastated a city on the northeastern coast of Japan in March 2011. Since the magnitude and scope of the natural disaster was very similar to the earthquake predicted for Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, OPB sent a production team to Japan to report on the damage. (Photo: Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock, DVIDS)

The authors developed this commentary after participating in a session at the joint convention of the National Association of Black Journalists and National Association of Hispanic Journalists, held in Washington, D.C., in August.

The days of doorstep newspaper delivery, listening to a live radio show or being part of a national audience watching the debut of a hit TV show are mostly over. Instead, today’s audiences enjoy reaching for content when, where and how they want it. These changes in media consumption have laid the foundation for the emerging form of journalism called “transmedia.”

The environment that once had clear expectations of story length and placement now has far fewer boundaries. Public media professionals have been working their way toward creating content for this space, but it’s finally clear — we are there. This is extremely exciting news for programmers, producers, journalists and storytellers.

Transmedia, a production model that allows us to unfold a story across multiple media formats, plays to public media’s strengths: robust distribution channels in broadcast and online platforms, high-quality content and talented professionals who can adapt to new opportunities.

Most media professionals are familiar with the term “multimedia,” which is basically one story told in multiple formats and published on one webpage. A news organization may use video, text, images and data visualizations to tell a story, but all of those forms land together on the organization’s website or mobile app.

As engaging and informative as multimedia can be, it leaves journalists crossing their fingers that their target audience will come to the site and stay long enough to explore.

Transmedia is a different concept of digital storytelling because it allows content creators to work in a more expansive way. In contrast to multimedia presentations, transmedia journalism increases the opportunity to reach the audience that may benefit the most from the material.

Maryanne Culpepper, executive director of the D.C. Environmental Film Festival and former president of National Geographic Studios, explains the distinction: “Both transmedia and multimedia projects offer various artistic and technological methods to encourage audiences to interact with a story. However, transmedia steps up the game by focusing on different aspects of the story and offering a variety of pathways into the project that engage users with different interests and perspectives.”

With transmedia journalism, each piece of media on each platform can stand alone for a readeror viewer, but exploring more than one adds to the user’s experience, explains researcher Kevin Moloney. To programmers in public media, this is of particular interest because it completes an equation that is central to our jobs: In short, deeper learning + deeper value = deeper impact.

In 2014 the National Geographic Society put this idea into practice with its “The Future of Food” project. The massive eight-month series unleashed 823 stories and 472 social media posts on 41 different digital, analog and brick-and-mortar channels, including three magazines, a cable TV series, museum exhibits and organized travel experiences.

The Pulitzer Prize–winning Marshall Project uses a transmedia approach to reach the target audience for a particular story. The single-topic news startup focuses on criminal justice issues but does not exclusively report for and publish on its own website; it frequently partners with the New York Times, Washington Post, Texas Tribune and others to share its reporting and reach new audiences. Through these partnerships the reports reach their intended audiences, whether they are in Washington, D.C., Texas or New York.

Transmedia journalism/storytelling can take many shapes, but its impact depends on smart planning and execution.

Preparing for the megaquake

At Oregon Public Broadcasting, a recent organization-wide transmedia effort sprang from discussions of the probability of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hitting the Pacific Northwest coast in the next 50 years. The predicted natural disaster could cause a tsunami and widespread damage. The editorial team behind the project decided to focus not on the science of the quake or the devastation it would cause. Instead, it chose to highlight what it would take to prepare for such a disaster.

A small steering group directed the production from the outset, ensuring that we maintained a tight editorial focus throughout the extended year-long rollout. The managing editor in our newsroom, Eve Epstein, coordinated all content-related activity to be sure it was consistent and integrated. We used a section of our internal planning software on the Confluence platform to aggregate story ideas, progress reports and calendars. On-air promotions and social media were carefully crafted by programming and digital producers to keep messaging simple and actionable. Members of the development staff used these resources to cultivate major donors whose gifts supported the expense of producing this ambitious project.

With this level of coordination and financial support, we were able to deepen our storytelling from the project’s very beginnings. OPB’s TV producers traveled to Japan to report on the effects of the 2011 Töhoku earthquake. They spoke with experts researching how the Oregon coast would fare following a major quake. Back in Oregon they partnered with emergency response agencies to explore how to raise awareness of the need to prepare for a natural disaster. That resulted in the centerpiece of OPB’s Unprepared, which included a TV documentary, a series of radio stories and extensive digital reporting.

OPB also assembled a small team of developers for a local hackathon that created an emergency preparedness app called Aftershock. Users enter any address in Oregon to generate a description of the quake’s intensity and the scope of damage, as well as how resilient public services are at that location. This app turned out to be another way to tell the story about preparedness for a major disaster.

One of four families who participated in OPB’s Live Off Your Quake Kit experiment, the Stephens lived in tents outside their Portland home for an entire weekend. Concerned about helping their neighbors prepare, they collected and displayed all the different types of containers that can be used to store water in the event of a natural disaster. (Photos: Alan Sylvestre/OPB)

The Stephens family lived in tents outside their Portland home for an entire weekend as part of OPB’s Live Off Your Quake Kit experiment. (Photo: Alan Sylvestre/OPB)

With partners like the Red Cross, we shared information about what Oregonians can do now to prepare, including basic steps such as creating emergency kits for home, car and family. We created engaging community events to bring to life what it takes to prepare at a basic level. For the Live Off Your Quake Kit experiment, for example, we asked four different families to spend a weekend living off the provisions in their emergency kits. Our production team reported on what the families learned about how well-prepared they were for a quake, with coverage produced for our radio talk show, website and in social media channels.

In the end, these efforts led to engagement activities focused on what it would take for a community to be prepared for such a disaster. The information we assembled is important for our established audience, but also important for those who aren’t regular viewers or listeners. Through partnerships, such as our work with the Red Cross, OPB reached a wide cross section of our community. Social media efforts like the 14 Gallon Challenge encouraged Oregon residents to stockpile emergency water, and allowed people in our audience to spread the word to their networks.

The results of these efforts were encouraging. Some of the feedback was anecdotal; for example, market clerks began asking why everyone seemed to be purchasing emergency supplies. Unprepared has contributed to growth on all OPB platforms, and individuals and other organizations continue to link to or provide online referrals to the content.

We also commissioned survey research to document changes in public opinion before and after launch of Unprepared. The surveys, drawn from statewide samples of likely voters, were conducted in fall 2014 and 2015 by DHM Research.

Both surveys found that more than half of respondents agreed that a major earthquake is likely to happen in their lifetimes and that the state should be investing in infrastructural upgrades and public education. The follow-up survey, fielded in 2015 after Unprepared had launched, measured a 5 percent increase in agreement, rising to 57 percent of respondents.

In addition, 40 percent of respondents had heard or seen OPB’s earthquake coverage, and 70 percent of this group agreed about the likelihood of an earthquake and need for investments in preparedness. Compared to those who weren’t exposed to OPB’s coverage, these respondents were more than twice as likely to take steps to prepare.

Reaching diverse audiences

The experience we gained through production of Unprepared enhanced other major transmedia work at OPB, including a project built around Jazztown, an OPB-produced historical TV documentary that debuted this spring.

Lynne Clendenin

Clendenin

We held early brainstorming sessions to generate ideas for stories and activities related to the history of jazz music and the people who brought its brilliance to Portland. With resources from jazz station KMHD-FM, which OPB operates in a local management agreement, we produced innovative digital content to accompany the TV program. Vigorous social media and marketing plans helped us reach a diverse audience by maximizing the exposure of this transmedia story.

OPB’s intention with Jazztown was to expand its reach to African-American audiences. People in the community were very excited that we covered an important part of cultural history that they felt had been forgotten. We hope that this production leads to a better relationship between OPB and the diverse communities of Portland and the Pacific Northwest.

David Stuckey

Stuckey

An analysis of web metrics for OPB Digital for April 2015–16 showed a 40 percent increase in both users and page views. That growth came from Jazztown, Unprepared and other smaller digital efforts; it shows a heightened and ongoing increase in engagement. With Jazztown, OPB’s content team refined its abilities to identify a topic with strong appeal and to also work collaboratively with the audience to build and share the story through community networks.

We once believed that after we broadcast a story, our audience moved on. Now, we recognize that they will engage deeply in our content if we can imagine how best to lift the story, how best to connect the dots. Technology is simply a tool for accomplishing this. As Maryanne Culpepper says, “It’s easy to get caught up in the thrill of ‘Look what we can do,’ and forget that content drives everything. Tech may get your audience to the table, but give them a weak story-world and you’ll lose them.”

The process of content creation always starts with “the story” or a Story Map — sort of a Venn diagram of the elements of your story — characters, locations, topics, history, etc.  The secret of transmedia journalism is figuring out all the different ways you can build stories around the central topic. If you’d like to reach a bigger audience through different media platforms, seek out partners and be ready to work collaboratively. Start connecting the dots — story elements to media possibilities — and keep building on it.

It is without doubt, transmedia spells exciting opportunities ahead.

Lynne Clendenin is v.p. of programming for OPB and manager of KMHD Jazz Radio; she also serves on the board of Public Radio Program Directors. David Stuckey is a digital producer for OPB who previously worked for USA Today in Washington, D.C., as a digital editor.

Other contributors to this commentary are Maryanne Culpepper, executive director of the D.C. Environmental Film Festival and former president of National Geographic Studios; Morgan Holm, OPB chief content officer; and Kevin Moloney, transmedia journalism consultant and researcher, and a veteran international photojournalist.