The year of the story

“Keep innovating, keep trying, keep experimenting. But you don’t have to do it all at once, you don’t have to do it every time, and you don’t have to do it alone.”

As the always insightful Cory Haik said last year, 2015 was the year of the reader. Indeed it was: More people read the news on their phones, and more news organizations invested in mobile. You saw the reports: Major news organizations had more readers on their mobile sites over desktop. We followed readers where they were and where they will soon be.

swati-sharmaAs an industry, we’ve been given a gift: There’s a whole new world on mobile to discover, so many new ways to experiment, and so many opportunities to reach our audience in far-flung parts of the world. So, what next?

2016 will be the year of the story.

Next year, the story will decide the platform. More and more, news outlets will reach outside their comfort zones to experiment with innovative ways of storytelling. Maybe that story you’re writing or editing is better as a video or a Snapchat or told through Instagram photos. When you’re first discussing a story with your team, think initially about how to tell it. Find the best platform, and embrace it.

Experimentation doesn’t have to be a huge lift. Not everything must be, nor should be, a 5,000-word story or an ambitious, customized experience. (But use those devices when they are warranted!) When you do stick with a traditional platform, though, find a low-commitment way to elevate your story. So many third-party tools exist that make experimenting easy, like Genius for annotation or Soundcite to add audio to stories.

Don’t stick to one platform to tell your story. Yes, we understand the importance of social media, but what we don’t need to do is create one experience for one app. Take a story idea you have and try to find two or three ways you would present it on different platforms. That explainer about why an election in Nigeria matters can also be a Snapchat Story. A narrative about children living in a refugee camp can also be shown through Instagram. At The Washington Post, we took Kevin Sullivan’s powerful series on life under the Islamic State and presented it through Twitter moments. We’ve already mastered the art of aggregation using tweets and other embeddable content — now let’s push our own stories to different mediums.

It’s all about collaboration. More and more, newsrooms will move to integrate different departments and create an environment where developers, reporters, designers, video, and photo are working in the same space.

Let go of your desire to add every tool to your big enterprise package. Try cool new things with a story when it makes sense. But not every presentation needs an interactive graphic and 360º video and a virtual reality component. Maybe it has one of those, or maybe even two. Maybe it has annotation, or it translates to different languages. Do what suits the story, but don’t overdo it.

In conclusion: Keep innovating, keep trying, keep experimenting. But you don’t have to do it all at once, you don’t have to do it every time, and you don’t have to do it alone. Carefully consider what works for each story, and keep the reader in mind. We have an opportunity to reach new audiences in a way that we never have, but if we aren’t smart about matching the right tools with the right stories, we won’t reach that big audience — or, more importantly, bring them back.

Swati Sharma is foreign digital editor of The Washington Post.