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July 25, 2011, 10:30 a.m.

Vadim Lavrusik: Five key building blocks to incorporate as we’re rethinking the structure of stories

How is the Internet influencing the core elements of narrative and storytelling?

Editor’s Note: Vadim Lavrusik is Facebook’s first Journalist Program Manager, where he is responsible for, among other things, helping journalists to create new ways to tell stories. (You may remember him from his work at Mashable.) In the article below, he provides an wide-angle overview of the key forces that are re-shaping the news article for the digital age.

If we could re-envision today’s story format — beyond the text, photographs, and occasional multimedia or interactive graphics — what would the story look like? How would the audience consume it?

Today’s web “article” format is in many ways a descendent from the golden age of print. The article is mostly a recreation of print page design applied to the web. Stories, for the most part, are coded with a styled font for the headline, byline, and body — with some divs separating complementary elements such as photographs, share buttons, multimedia items, advertising, and a comments thread, which is often so displaced from the story that it’s hard to find. It is only scratching the surface of the storytelling that is possible on the web.

In the last few years, we’ve seen some progress in new approaches to the story format on the web, but much of it has included widgets and tools tacked on for experimentation. And it doesn’t fully account for changes in user behavior and the proliferation of simple publishing tools and platforms on the web. As the Huffington Post’s Saul Hansell recently put it, “There are a lot more people saying things than there is stuff to say in this world.” Tools like Storify and Storyful enable journalists to curate the conversation that’s taking place on the social web, turning ephemeral comments into enduring narratives. A story, Jeff Jarvis notes, can be the byproduct of the process of newsgathering — the conversation.

And the conversation around the story has become, at this point, almost as important as the story itself. The decisions we make now — of design and of content creation — will inform the evolution of the story itself. So it’s worth stepping back and wondering: How can we hack today’s story into something that reflects the needs of today’s news consumers and publishers, integrates the vast amounts of content and data being created online, and generally leverages the opportunities the web has created? Below are some of the most crucial elements of online storytelling; think of it as a starting point for a conversation about the pieces tomorrow’s story format could include.

1. Context

Context wears many hats in a story. It could mean representing historical context through an interactive timeline or presenting contextualized information that puts the story in perspective. It could be an infographic, a subhead with information — or cumulative bits of information that run through a narrative. When the first American newspaper, Publick Occurrences, was published, many of its stories were only a few sentences in length. Most of its stories were reports that were gathered through word of mouth. But because of the infrequency of the publication and short length of the stories, it failed to provide the reader with adequate context in its stories. Haphazard newsgathering led to a somewhat chaotic experience for readers.

Today, though, with publication happening every millisecond, the overflow of information presents a different kind of challenge: presenting short stories in a way that still provides the consumer with context instead of just disparate pieces of information. We’ve seen a piece of the solution with the use of Storify, which enables journalists to organize the social story puzzle pieces together to suggest a bigger picture. But how can this approach be scaled? How can we provide context in a way that is not only comprehensive, but inclusive?

2. Social

Social platforms have, in short, changed the way we consume news. Over the last decade, we consumers spent a big portion of our time searching for news and seeking it out on portals and news sites. Now news finds us. We discover it from friends, colleagues, and people with whom we share intellectual interests. It’s as if on every corner one of our friends is a 1900s paperboy shouting headlines along with their personal take on the news in question. The news is delivered right to us in our personalized feeds and streams.

Social design makes the web feel more familiar. We tend to refer to readers and viewers as consumers, and that’s not only because they consume the content that is presented or pay for it as customers; it’s also because they’re consumed by the noise that the news creates. Social design adds a layer that acts as a filter for the noise.

Stories have certainly integrated social components so far, whether it’s the ability of a consumer to share a story with friends or contribute her two cents in the comments section. But how can social design be integrated into the structure of a story? Being able to share news or see what your friends have said about the piece is only scratching the surface. More importantly, how can social design play nice with other components discussed here? How do you make stories that are not just social, but also contextual — and, importantly, personal?

3. Personalization

One of the benefits of social layering on the web is the ability to personalize news delivery and provide social context for a user reading a story. A user can be presented with stories based on what their social connections have shared using applications like Flipboard, Zite, Trove, and many others. Those services incorporate social data to learn what it is you may be interested in reading about, adding a layer of cusomtization to news consumption. Based on your personal interests, you are able to get your own version of the news. It’s like being able to customize a newscast with only segments you’re interested in, or only have the sports section of the local newspaper delivered to your porch…times ten.

How can we serve consumers’ needs by delivering a story in a format they prefer, while avoiding the danger of creating news consumers who only read about things they want know (and not news they should know)? Those are big questions. One answer could have to do with format: enabling users to consume news in a format or style they prefer, enabling them to create their own personalized article design that suits their needs. Whatever it looks like, personalization is not only important in enabling users to get content in a compelling format. It’s also crucial from the business perspective: It enables publishers to learn more about their audiences to better serve them through forms of advertising, deals, and services that are just as relevant and personalized.

4. Mobile

Tomorrow’s story will be designed for the mobile news consumer. Growing accessibility to smartphones is only going to continue to increase, and the story design and format will likely increasingly cater to mobile users. They will also take into account the features of the platform the consumer is on and their behavior when they are consuming the content. The design will take into account how users interact with stories from their mobile devices, using touch-screen technology and actions. We’re already seeing mobile and tablet design influence web design.

These are challenges not only of design, but of content creation. Journalists may begin to produce more abbreviated pieces for small-screen devices, while enabling longform to thrive on tablet-sized screens. Though journalists have produced content from the field for years, the advancement of mobile technology will continue to streamline this process. Mobile publication is already integrated into content management platforms, and companies like the BBC are working on applications that will enable users to broadcast live from their mobile phones.

5. Participation

Citizens enabled by social platforms are covering revolutions on mobile devices. Users are also able to easily contribute to a story by snapping a picture or video and uploading it with their mobile devices to a platform like iReport. Tomorrow’s article will enable people to be equal participants in the story creation process.

Increasingly, participation will mean far more than simply consumption, being cast aside as a passive audience that can contribute to the conversation only by filing a comment below a published story (pending moderator approval). The likes of iReport, The Huffington Post’s “contribute” feature, or The New York Daily News’ recent uPhoto Olapic integration — which enables people to easily upload their photos to a story slideshow and share photos they’ve already uploaded to Facebook, Flickr, and elsewhere — are just the beginning. To harness participatory journalism, these features should no longer be an afterthought in the design, but a core component of it. As Jay Rosen recently put it, “It isn’t true that everyone is a journalist. But a lot more people are involved.”

Image by Holger Zscheyge used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 25, 2011, 10:30 a.m.
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