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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.

                                   
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Joseph Lichterman    July 22, 2014
The site known for social media and tech coverage has hired nearly 30 more editorial staffers since October and, like BuzzFeed before it, is expanding into more general interest news.
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  • http://twitter.com/ChrisLKeller Chris Keller

    Agreed, agreed, agreed… But we may need some things in place before we can arrive at a website where the article is part of the presentation and not the focus.

    My wishlist (warning… tl;dr incoming)…

    Let’s start with some new tools, something for the front-line journalists to help re-focus their efforts from filling the next day’s paper to reporting based on a crowd of experts that help add value and context to topics and issues.

    I think Brian Boyer’s PANDA project and Jonathan Stray’s Overview as two beginning of “DRY” tools for journalists who — to paraphrase Reg Chua — day after day are left to dig up background paragraphs from the last story, update with new information or change them slightly, but leave the original stories outdated and without new-found context and information.

    It’s a take on Matt Waite’s “confederation of custom content management systems that handle stories of a specific type.” While we’re at it, journalists could use a better way of storing source information — capture tweets, images, audio and documents for internal consumption and news gathering purposes. Manila folders or computer desktop folders… We need something better…

    Now that we have some new tools, how can we further change the print culture of news organizations used to letting articles and reports become the “rough draft of history,” pieces of content that are left to become an isolated event that lacks background and new information accumulated during subsequent reporting and content gathering?

    Let’s take the best aspects of Document Cloud, Google’s Living Stories, the explainer pieces from Mother Jones, the Guardian’s topic pages, and aspects of Wikipedia and Quora, and mash them together into an immersive desktop and mobile user experience. Think of it as the new morgue, a digital version that trusted members of the public help to curate.

    Then let’s give the user a tiered-approach to consuming the news… Think Newsbound combined with college courses:
    – An introductory level that offers a quick overview.
    – An intermediate level that builds on and adds depth and context to a subject.
    – An expert level that where trusted, credible users, experts in their respective fields and professional journalists create an compendium of authoritative information on a subject based on daily and enterprise reporting and curated social media streams.

    With all those in play, I think we have Jeff Jarvis’ “thing that is created, curated, edited, and discussed. It’s a blog that treats a topic as an ongoing and cumulative process of learning, digging, correcting, asking, answering. It’s also a wiki that keeps a snapshot of the latest knowledge and background. … It’s a discussion that tries to accomplish something.”

    It will take plenty of work, but I think there’s enough of us out there to see it through… And oh the things we will see…

  • http://twitter.com/bobstep bob stepno

    Under “context” I would include fact-checking, linkage and transparency — ways that a reporter can answer the “How do I know?” and “How do they support this statement?”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=13930675 Vadim Lavrusik

    Love this. I think this brings up another issue: because so many people’s skills are not yet focused on this, it will take time for the production of the new kind of storytelling to scale.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=13930675 Vadim Lavrusik

    Absolutely agree. Those are very valid points to include.

  • http://twitter.com/ABDpromotions ABD Promotions

    Great post!  Content is so important when sharing but context, personalization, participation and mobility is crucial in the delivery.

  • Isabeldorastorey

    While writing my novel, I am toying with the notion of inserting links so the reader can choose to go to : character’s back story; versions of events as viewed by each participant; detailed descriptions for those who need more than just the bare bones of the tale; and all the other stuff that speed readers glide over. (Guilty).
    Have reserved the domain name for the title of the work in progress. The book has been simmering in my head for over thirty years and now, at 71.5 years of age am beginning to see the limit on its completion. At the present I am proceeding with plain text, but the idea as outlined above keeps intruding.
    I doubt that I am alone in thinking alone these lines and would welcome contact with like minded persons.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=13930675 Vadim Lavrusik

    If content is king, then distribution is queen. If it’s not being distributed, then who is being informed?

  • http://twitter.com/Rhetorikolas Rick Canfield

    That would be great, but preferable to have the links slightly faded to not disturb from the reading experience, but noticeable enough to be a link. 

  • http://twitter.com/seasononthe101 Season

    Excellent essay, thank you.  Love everything coming out of Nieman Lab, feel like I’m in an online classroom.  Besides the article you have linked with Jay Rosen’s name, he also wrote some good stuff on The Economist this month in a debate of how the web has helped journalism

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  • http://twitter.com/jonathanstray jonathanstray

    Nice job Vadim. I’d like to recommend also the best recent discussions I’ve seen of the future of the story, the talks by Trei Brundrett of SB Nation and Gideon Lichfield of The Economist at the NYC Hacks Hackers meetup last week on What is the future of stories?. Trei took us through SB Nation’s “story stream” model and Gideon gave a really nice run through of the “news thing” concept that was fleshed-out collaboratively last month at Spark Camp by Gideon, Matt Thompson, and a room full of others.

    Video of the presentations here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=13930675 Vadim Lavrusik

    Thanks for sharing. Wish I would have attended that session at Spark Camp.

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  • http://twitter.com/jonathanstray jonathanstray

    This post inspired me to assemble a “new structure of stories” reading list. Lots of links.

  • Kirkfhouse

    I think time is a big missing piece of the puzzle.  If we think of news stories as evolving entities then it’s certainly not reflected in how we write.  CNN has “Related Articles” which is only slightly helpful.We need a sort of private Wiki on steroids to really capture events that span days or weeks.  We have the technology but journalists will need to abandon their individualistic tendencies and write within the confines of this new structure.Sometimes spectacular infographics appear after events have occured but that richness is rarely applied to the event in its entirety.  We have the technology.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=13930675 Vadim Lavrusik

    Agreed, though this doesn’t support the current business model, which is incentivized by pageviews and that means multiple Pages that can be linked to, shared, searched, etc. I think there’s a way to achieve this while still being able to keep the business incentives in mind.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=13930675 Vadim Lavrusik

    Agreed, though this doesn’t support the current business model, which is incentivized by pageviews and that means multiple Pages that can be linked to, shared, searched, etc. I think there’s a way to achieve this while still being able to keep the business incentives in mind.

  • Jeff Stanger

    I would add Interactivity (of the product, not just process) as a distinguishing element of digital-native storytelling. Great piece.

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  • Jane Stevens

    Great post, Vadim. A few years ago, I put out a similar list on my poor neglected blog, ReJurno.com — http://rejurno.com/web-traits/
    And then proceeded down a long convoluted path to develop a local/regional health news site that embraced those characteristics (which, after reading your list, obviously need updating…e.g. Storify wasn’t invented yet). 

    Last year, we launched a social journalism site called WellCommons.com in the small town of Lawrence, KS. Our approach was to focus on baking the building blocks you mention into a small news ecosystem, not just the individual story. The site has a public-facing admin….in other words we let the people in. Anyone who signs up with their real name can post content. We’ve had a topics page (for context) on our list since we began, as well as a goals app and mobile. (And I pant with envy at the sites that have the resources to grow databases and build out resources.)

    The basic structure of the site revolves around groups, which help with the signal to noise issue (posts are ID’d with an individual’s name and the group from which they post). This is critical for local niche sites, because solutions are not just individual, but require a community to create and put into place. E.g., if you want your kids to eat healthy lunches, the best solution is to figure out how to make sure healthy  lunches are served in schools, and it takes a community to accomplish that. If people need safe places to exercise outdoors, it takes a community to build bike paths, playgrounds, hiking trails.

    This structure also ensures a place for the “long tail” of content that our reporters are not likely to cover — and our community has told us that’s one of the reasons they like the site.

    The goals app is a very important addition because one of the inherent characteristics of the digital environment is that it is solution-oriented, something that print, TV, radio could never be.

    The site’s growing very well, and our community has told us that they love it (and have never been shy about telling us what new functions they want on the site…we do our best to accommodate.)

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=712166276 Anonymous

    Of course, given my role at DailyMe, I’d zero in on your point 3 on personalization. I think each story can be optimized for each user based on the kinds of things a user has shown an interest in. Some users want to drill deeper. Other users want a quick overview. Others are visual and want a story told in images or charts. The personalization/optimization also should take into account time of day and day of week. During the day, users may be more about information snacking, but in the evening they may want depth.

  • Robq

    Personal opinions hiding behind the writer’s overuse of adjectives need to be curtailed. Let the reader participate and get involved by completing the story according to his/her perspective. “Humanization” of a story is the result of a rational articulation of facts to an inevitable conclusion. Chekov’s “Three Sisters” may be used to understand audience participation, or the manner in which Hitcock built suspense in his films.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/dwpaxson Dana Paxson

    First, my thanks to  Vadim Lavrusik for this thread, and to Tanya Smedley of Second Life for connecting me to it.

    For Isabeldorastorey:
    We are running parallel threads in this range of storytelling, you and I.  My major work of fiction failed as a novel in the 1990s, and I then set about doing the sort of things you described here.  You can engage the monster result online in complete form at my website, at this link:  http://www.danapaxsonstudio.com/DR%20Latest/Website/Demo.htm .  It is a multithreaded set of stories in a single huge setting, with quietly-embedded links for vocabulary and references, and a set of reference articles about the setting.  The software technology for organizing and presenting the work is of my design and making.  It appears that your work might benefit from a treatment along the lines of what I’ve done. Feel free to contact me via the website: http://www.danapaxsonstudio.com/ (then click on Contact and email me). I’ve not commercialized it, but it should serve as a springboard for ideas.This technology would work even better for textbooks, technical books, and even journalistic works in which a tight but bushy web of references is often vital for credibility and comprehension.I’ve taken this whole thing even further, into a virtual-world setting in Second Life, where I’ve constructed a walk-through model of parts of the setting of the written work.  For a video of the result as art, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdfuASJf1KQ , which is in the current 5th Annual Alumni Art Show at the University of Michigan.Bloody-minded obsessiveness helps a lot.  Drop me a note!  I wish you well!

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