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News — but make it cinematic

“If Facebook made everyone a broadcaster and Instagram democratized photography, then Instagram Stories and Snapchat are making everyone visual designers.”

Journalism is under siege, agreed. And more consumers than ever are turning to their phones to find distraction along with their headlines.

But the promise of social media isn’t the de facto undoing of news. Quite the opposite: With more ways than ever to present visuals, journalism has the opportunity to come to life in a hybrid format that borrows from documentary films, graphic design, and even social media’s visual lingo, such as gifs.

Obstacles exist, of course. Putting together a news feature that incorporates text, graphic design, original photography, video, and gifs while also designing a shortened version for social media platforms like Instagram Stories not only requires collaboration across multiple departments — it requires planning from the start. This can’t happen in breaking news scenarios. Moreover, immersive multimedia packages will become harder to produce as newsrooms become leaner and more cash-strapped.

That said, when news departments approach features with a holistic storytelling approach, real magic can happen.

Think, for example, of The New York Times’s original multimedia showcase, 2012’s “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.” Six years later, Snow Fall remains one of the most gorgeous packages the Times has ever produced, incorporating video clips, annotations, and animated maps, as well as text and photography. The story about an ill-fated ski outing didn’t rely merely on words — it smartly made use of all the tools available to illustrate its story in ways that mere text couldn’t.

More recently, this past fall, the Times’ “The Case of Jane Doe Ponytail” used looping video as a backdrop for a story by reporters Dan Barry and Jeremy Singer about the death of a call girl in Queens. Darkly cinematic video and photos by Todd Heisler, set against a design layout that pushes photos to the edges of the screen, transports viewers directly into the lonely world of “Sisi,” who died when she fell out of a window following a police raid.

If Facebook made everyone a broadcaster and Instagram democratized photography, then Instagram Stories and Snapchat are making everyone visual designers. Insta Stories’ constant use of short video clips incorporating text, gifs, and color filters is like having a daily lesson in design. As more apps appear to make design better, and as people continue to watch Stories on a daily basis, it makes sense that consumers are becoming more literate in multimedia storytelling.

This is a real opportunity for news departments. Approaching storytelling with an outlook that aims to incorporate all of the visual tools available — from moving Flixels to looping video — doesn’t just bring narratives to life in ways not previously possible. It also gives readers compelling reasons to stay, and to share. This isn’t the same as saying “toss all the content into every outlet” or thoughtlessly rework words into an Insta Story after the fact. This is about creating a cohesive visual style suited for every platform, from desktop browser to smartphone to Insta Story. When all the parts are designed to complement one another, readers who find a news feature in one format will be compelled to follow it to other platforms, ideally creating a loop of readers who invest their time in seeing one story from multiple angles.

Given how the smartphone has revolutionized how people communicate, it’s time for newsrooms to take similar risks. It’s already starting to happen, but in the years to come, investing in news features that break down the traditional boundaries of visual communication is the most exciting storytelling opportunity for the contemporary newsroom.

Elva Ramirez is a freelance multimedia reporter and social media consultant.

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