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April 9, 2013, 12:54 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Design isn’t just for the big guys: In Memphis, the Commercial Appeal retells MLK’s last 32 hours

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It’s been 45 years since Martin Luther King, Jr.’s murder was on the front pages of newspapers around the country. For The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, the story was a local one; King was assassinated while visiting the city to lend his support to the city’s sanitation workers who were on strike to protest their working conditions.

More than four decades later, the paper wanted to take a different approach to retelling the story of what happened to King. What they produced is 6:01, a narrative account of King’s final 32 hours in Memphis, wrapped in a custom interactive reading experience. Assembled through a combination of interviews, public records, published accounts, and other documents, the story builds a sense of pace and suspense from the moment King and his entourage land in Memphis to the moment James Earl Ray pulls the trigger and takes King’s life. The story takes on a cinematic feel thanks to the immersive, magazine-like design, which includes ample photography from the period as well as video interviews and a timeline.

6:01 — the time when King was shot — is the sort of merger of words and interactive design we’re seeing more frequently from media companies these days, whether it’s The New York Times, ESPN, Pitchfork, or CNN. The new attention to design from national outlets has not escaped the notice of smaller news orgs. What makes 6:01 remarkable is that it shows how smaller newspapers — operating at a different scale and typically with lesser resources — are trying to break outside of the normal design language of news on the web.

“We’re really committed to figuring this out. It’s a big experiment for us, obviously,” said Louis Graham, interim managing editor of The Commercial Appeal. “There’s a lot to learn. But it’s something we hope we can do more and more and hope it becomes a routine for us.”

The process started last fall, as reporter Marc Perrusquia began work on the story. Perrusquia has been with the Appeal for 24 years and has spent a lot of that time covering aspects of King’s life and death, including a prison interview with James Earl Ray in the 1990s. Last year, Perrusquia had reported a series of stories on Ernest Withers — the civil rights photographer who turned out to be an FBI informant — that was helped along by the release of previously sealed FBI files. With that case still in the back of his head, Perrusquia said he wanted write about King from a new perspective. “We wanted to go back to as many of the original people who are surviving and the original records to just kind of walk through the day,” Perrusquia said.

So he set out to create a “day in the life” tale of one of the most-written about people in American history — which might seem like a futile task. But Perrusquia said the story was in the smaller details of King’s last 32 hours, not necessarily the scope. Instead of a Rashomon effect, we find a story that melds the remembrances of Kings contemporaries who are still alive with the historical record.

As Perrusquia assembled his story, the layout and design presented a different set of challenges. Graham said they knew they wanted to break out of the paper’s traditional storytelling formats, but that presented a problem in terms of resources. Staff reductions, as well as the daily needs of a metro newspaper meant the paper couldn’t afford to devote much of its digital staff to working on the project for four months. “It’s accepted that we’re going to have to find other resources where we can,” he said.

Instead, they turned to parent company E.W. Scripps to help develop the project. Working in concert with digital staff at Scripps HQ in Cincinnati, Graham and his editors started with outlines of the story, feeding the developers new drafts and art as they came in. “It’s a challenge,” Graham said. “It’s time consuming on the technology side. You have to have some lead time. This is not something you can do last minute.”

The recent explosion in online feature design has both emboldened other media companies to experiment and also given them a guide. “The New York Times did the avalanche piece and people are almost starting to refer to pieces like this as ‘snowfalling,'” said Andre Howell, senior director of product design and development for Scripps.

The central conceit the designers wanted to use was time, as the story sits in a fixed 36-hour universe that counts down to 6:01 p.m. of the evening King was shot. Howell said they wanted the design to help propel readers through the story as a visual accompaniment for the pacing set by Perrusquia’s writing. “It holds you at the cusp,” he said. “You’re reading and he’s only got 20 hours to live, and even though you know what happens at the end of those 20 hours, it gives users the anticipation” to continue reading, he said.

Howell said they knew they wanted to use a long, continuous scroll to drive the piece because it gives the reader a sense of movement, but allows designers the ability to drop in interactive or graphical elements to help in the storytelling. Building the custom design took time, and Howell said they were working on code until just before the story went live on April 3.

This was the first project of its kind for Howell’s department, which is tasked with creating apps and other digital products for Scripps, as well as rolling out the company’s digital subscription service at its newspapers. Howell said he sees 6:01 as an experiment, one he hopes to improve for the future by building better transitions inside the feature. One obvious need is to make it more friendly for mobile devices — 6:01’s layout is the same on a 27-inch iMac as on the smallest smartphone, which makes the text barely readable on mobile devices. (Future projects could be responsively designed, Howell said.)

Graham said he emailed the Appeal newsroom after 6:01 was published to ask for story ideas that could warrant similar treatment. But we could also expect similar interactive features from other Scripps newspapers, said Bruce McLean, senior director of digital operations for Scripps. “One of the things we’ve been talking about a long time is the ability to create really great digital journalism projects based on local stories,” McLean said.

Like many newspaper chains, Scripps has tried to find cost savings in consolidating operations in regional facilities. McLean said the centralized digital team is staffed by many of the developers who previously worked at various Scripps papers. While that shift changes the process of conceiving and building homegrown interactives for the papers, McLean thinks the digital hub will result in the ability to do more and more ambitious projects in the future. A centralized design and development shop means Scripps will not only be able to scale projects like 6:01, but they can also distribute them to all of the company’s properties to reach the widest audience possible, McLean said.

POSTED     April 9, 2013, 12:54 p.m.
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