How to Scale up ‘Interactive Documentary’ in Digital Newsrooms

    by Ben DeJarnette
    February 10, 2016
    Mobile platforms and the use of interactive documentary are changing the way audiences experience journalistic storytelling. Stock image from kaboompics.com.

    Award-winning interactive documentary projects like “Snow Fall” by the New York Times and “Mapping Main Street” by NPR may be all the rave. But even so, interactive documentaries still make up only a narrow slice of the mainstream media ecosystem.

    William Uricchio, principal investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, says legacy news organizations would benefit from fixing that.

    “Since the First World War, journalism’s job has really been to separate fact from fiction. But that function is actually changing a bit. It’s beginning to become more of a connection between publics and sources. It’s becoming something that shapes conversations.” - William Uricchio

    “It’s about getting market share back, and market share of a younger public,” Uricchio said. “Young people have a kind of digital literacy that we need to be providing textual systems for. Facebook is doing it. BuzzFeed is doing it. Why aren’t the mainstreams doing it? The medium is not the problem.”


    ‘Mapping the Intersection of Two Cultures’

    In November, Uricchio and the MIT Open Documentary Lab released an exhaustive report titled “Mapping the Intersection of Two Cultures: Interactive Documentary and Digital Journalism,” which presents case studies and research findings about the early applications of interactive documentary in newsrooms. The report, developed through eight months of research, also offers seven key takeaways for news organizations beginning to experiment with interactive documentary.  

    Among the report’s findings is that interactive documentary has demonstrated the “ability to engage young audiences, offering intuitive interfaces and opportunities for personalized exploration.” This is important not only for strengthening journalism’s business model, Uricchio said, but also for reinvigorating civic participation.  

    “We need young people to be informed citizens,” he said. “How do we make decisions if our citizenry is not informed? If you have a disconnected younger generation, that doesn’t bode well for the future.”


    During an interview last week, Uricchio explained why interactive documentaries are still a rarity in journalism, despite their popularity with young audiences. We also discussed what steps journalists and industry leaders can take to quicken the pace of innovation and change in their newsrooms. Here are four of Uricchio’s insights.

    Photo by F Delventhal on Flickr and reused here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by F Delventhal on Flickr and reused here with Creative Commons license.

    Think about long-term business models

    In hard economic times, executives face a difficult choice between doubling down on investment in innovative, if unproven, approaches to journalism, or instead padding the bottom line by cutting costs and creating a slimmer organization. So far, many news organizations have settled for the latter approach.

    “I think that, under pressure, people often make short-term decisions,” Uricchio said. “Cost-cutting is a great example.”

    But Uricchio is optimistic that interactive documentary’s barriers to entry are getting lower. While the award-winning projects produced at places like the New York Times and the Guardian clearly require custom coding and design expertise, there are an increasing number of content management systems that allow smaller operations to emulate those interactive formats — at a fraction of the cost.

    Uricchio says news organizations can also achieve cost savings by partnering with other local media outlets for these interactive projects. This allows, say, a newspaper and a radio station to pool their resources and their expertise, creating an opportunity for both outlets to build news products and business strategies that will outlive the baby boomer generation.

    “What’s the future if you can’t grab a younger viewership or readership?” Uricchio said. “I would put my money in community engagement strategies and trying to get a younger generation more involved.”

    Close the skills gap

    As news organizations look to scale up interactive documentary, they need the expertise of journalists who are proficient in coding and digital design. But Uricchio says that talent remains in short supply.  

    “Yeah, there’s a skills gap,” he said. “Code matters, and it’s important for news organizations to have more and more people who understand that.”

    But the skills gap is about more than technology, Uricchio said. It’s also about philosophy. Interactive documentaries are fundamentally about increasing participation and engagement with journalism–what media scholar James Carey called the “ritual” component of communications. It’s a skill set and a mindset that Uricchio said is often given short shrift in traditional newsrooms.

    This skills gap has hampered the growth of interactive documentary, but Uricchio says there are signs of that changing. University programs such as the Brown Institute for Media Innovation and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, for example, are busy training a new generation of web-savvy and code-proficient journalists. Meanwhile, CUNY’s “social journalism” master’s program and others are emphasizing community engagement and the ritual of communications.

    Why haven’t more universities followed suit? There could be many reasons, but Uricchio points first to the rigid credentialing standards that journalism schools must comply with in order to remain accredited.

    “The ACEJMC specifies what constitutes an appropriate curriculum, and they tend to be fairly old-school,” Uricchio said. “I think that’s the problem. Journalism education is so much about credentialing and fulfilling the terms that are expected in the profession. And the profession has not yet established this as one of its terms.”

    A screenshot of the MIT report's title page.

    A screenshot of the MIT report’s title page.

    Embrace role as community builder

    “Since the First World War, journalism’s job has really been to separate fact from fiction,” Uricchio said. “But that function is actually changing a bit. It’s beginning to become more of a connection between publics and sources. It’s becoming something that shapes conversations.”

    Uricchio says many news organizations have turned to social media specialists as “the fix” for creating community online. But true engagement and audience participation involve much more than boosting clicks, likes, and retweets. In fact, interactive documentaries reflect a shifting role for journalists, from transmitters of information to mediators of conversation.

    “There’s something really important about community and about the exchange of information and ideas and opinions on a community level,” Uricchio said. “Newspapers have long been part of our communities, but as more and more syndicated stuff came in, the most local part of the newspaper became the advertisements. The [editorial] content didn’t really speak to the needs of the people.”

    Interactive documentaries often counter that trend by making the public part of the journalistic process. Sometimes that involves crowdsourced news, as with “The Counted” project by the Guardian, which uses audience tips to track police shootings in the U.S. But interactive documentary can also feature deeper levels participation in which the journalist and the community members work as partners.

    “Co-creation means that the makers of journalism work hand in hand with the public, even in framing the question,” Uricchio said, citing projects like WBEZ’s Curious City. “The public isn’t just doing a task for someone. They’re actually helping shape the agenda.”

    Leverage archives for storytelling

    Interactive documentary is also a way for news organizations to strengthen the sense of community around their news product, especially when they take advantage of their archives, Uricchio said.

    “[The archives] are an asset that ties them to the community long-term and reminds audiences of their roots in the community,” he said. “The digital space enables putting that stuff together without any paper expenses or room limitations. You can’t do that in print or in a 23-minute evening newscast, but you sure can do it in digital.”

    Among the case studies outlined the MIT report is the collaborative project by the New York Times and National Film Board of Canada called “A Short History of the Highrise,” which uses the newspaper’s photo archives to construct a documentary about New York City’s vertical growth. 

    Uricchio expects projects like Highrise to become more common as news organizations recognize the value of their historical archives. It’s good community building, he says, but also good journalism, offering context and depth to stories that too often get covered as anomalies.

    “History exists for a reason,” he said. “The archive is a very useful way to show where these issues come from and how these debates play out over time.”

    Ben DeJarnette is the associate editor at MediaShift. He is also a freelance contributor for Pacific Standard, InvestigateWest, Men’s Journal, Runner’s World, Oregon Quarterly and others. He’s on Twitter @BenDJduck.

    Tagged: digital journalism engagement interactive documentary macarthur foundation mit open documentary lab william uricchio

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