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Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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Rough Ride and the potential for innovation in local public media

The immersive multimedia documentary, built using Zeega, tells the story of the impact of oil drilling in North Dakota.

Todd Melby wants to tell small stories. Hardly an impossible goal for a journalist, but when you’re looking at something as big as the explosion in oil drilling in North Dakota, the scale of the story can get out of hand. In less than five years, the state has tripled its oil production; the Census Bureau estimates western North Dakota (where the oil is) will see its population increase by 50 percent. Big story.

So Melby decided to to tell the macro story in a micro way, focusing on the roughnecks who come to North Dakota in search of jobs, the daily experience of working on an drilling rig, and the families whose lives are upended by the oil patch. The result is Rough Ride, a multimedia experience that takes an intimate, documentary-esque approach to telling the story. Split into a series of chapters, Rough Ride divides up the various players and scenes found throughout North Dakota’s rapidly expanding oil country, intertwined with interactive graphics, photography, and first-person video.

(It’s not something easy to embed in an article like this; you really do need to go to the site and let it play to get the experience. Go full screen if you can. It’s immersive in a way that a 600-pixel-wide frame can’t be.)

Melby produced Rough Ride in partnership with Prairie Public Broadcasting, the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR), and Zeega, the interactive storytelling platform that won a Knight News Challenge grant in 2011. Rough Ride is part of a larger project called Localore, a multimillion dollar experiment in locally focused public journalism across 10 stations in the U.S. Individual producers like Melby are working with stations to combine audio, broadcast, and digital production to increase engagement in local communities.

The reason Melby was so interested in the story was simple: He’s a native of the Roughrider State. “It’s a huge, important, story from North Dakota’s perspective. It’s a story that’s changing the state’s history,” he said. “Everything about North Dakota is changing because of the oil boom.”

“I wanted to do small stories, those personal stories where you could see the boom through these people’s eyes.”

The heart of the boom is three hours from Melby’s hometown, and it’s there where he started his reporting by chatting up people in shops, gas stations, and parking lots, eventually finding his way into their homes. Melby created the ongoing series Black Gold Boom, working primarily in audio and photography and producing stories for radio that aired on Prairie Public Broadcasting as well as shows like Marketplace. For Rough Ride, Melby wanted the story to be close and personal, so he brought on photographers Ben Garvin and Philipp Batta to help shoot video.

“So many stories written about oil production are what the numbers are, the new record, the housing,” he said. “I wanted to do small stories, those personal stories where you could see the boom through these people’s eyes.”

Using Zeega, Melby and his team were able to give the story that immersive feel. Rough Ride unfolds not in a video player, but across the entirety of your screen, giving it a cinematic quality. Each chapter is bracketed by interactive elements, data showing the growing pace and impact of oil production, and first-person accounts of life on an oil rig. (I recommend spending a few minutes watching the one inside the “man camp” where roughnecks live.)

Rough Ride and the other Localore projects are glimpses of what Zeega, which was developed through funding from Knight Foundation and other sources, is capable of. It’s a kind of open web toolkit that allows anyone — journalists, documentarians, enthusiasts — to produce this sort of multimedia story. The platform is part repository, part workshop, allowing users to pull in video, photography, sound, and other elements that are freely available on the web. It’s a flexible tool: While Rough Ride was a linear story that followed a more traditional framing, something like the Austin Music Map, another Localore project, is more of a choose-your-own-adventure.

At the moment, the team behind Zeega is still preparing the product for an official launch and is working on securing funding. They envision Zeega as be something akin to SoundCloud, equal parts community and work space, where producers can create projects and share material. Jesse Shapins, Zeega’s chief strategy architect, said working on the Localore projects has been a great way to showcase how versatile the platform can be. For Rough Ride, he said the needs of the story drove what was included in the interactive elements. Multimedia experiences, Shapin said, are about finding the right balance between editorial decisions that direct the story and giving people choices in how they experience it. “I think what it shows is the potential, basically, for being able to have a slight degree of interaction to enrich what is a very cinematic story,” he said.

In the next month, more Localore projects will be launched, including Sonic Trace, a look at the past and future of Latin American immigrants living in Los Angeles, as well as ReInvention, a multi-part story on how the people of Dayton, Ohio, have dealt with economic upheaval. Sue Schardt, AIR’s executive director, says Localore shows how public media, both individual producers and stations, can adapt to change in the media industry. It’s a double benefit, she said, because stations are able to tell untold stories and experiment with new technologies and platforms.

As a project, Localore is designed to help stations step outside of the daily news cycle and think broadly about how they are serving their communities, and what they’ll need to continue to do that in the future. Schardt said there is a sense of urgency from local stations that the time to act is now. “There’s a consistency,” she said, “It’s that the stations — they’re craving innovation and pursuing it, to varying degrees.”

                                   
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