The New York Times celebrated its 162nd birthday in style last week with the launch of “Tomato Can Blues,” a longform multimedia piece that tells the story of Charlie Rowan, a small-time cage fighter turned petty crook. Featuring scrolling, comic book-style illustrations, and narration by actor Bobby Cannavale, the article’s multimedia elements quickly drew comparisons with the Times’ other interactive projects “The Jockey” and “Snow Fall.”
CJR talked to Andrew Kueneman, deputy digital design director, and Steve Duenes, associate managing editor for visualization at the Times, about their work on “Tomato Can Blues” and the paper’s evolving multimedia plan.
How did you put “Tomato Can Blues” together? How did you decide on the illustrations?
Andrew Kueneman: I think when they [the sports desk] first were looking at it, they realized they had no art, no photos. And so this was a piece that screamed for some visuals, but they had nothing. The subject was in prison, and there really wasn’t anything to grab onto visually. So I think because of that desperation, the art director [Sam Manchester] said, “Hey, let’s think about what we can do to illustrate this story.”
He [Manchester] had developed some sketches based on some reporting and some crime-scene photography, and some other source materials. Some of these were like pencil sketches, and he said, “What do you think we can do with these things?” And we got together with some people on the graphics desk, on Steve’s team, and we started to think about how we could jump into the art direction of these illustrations early enough where we could get them into their component parts, their layers, and think about what we could do with those dimensional pieces in a scrolling story experience. We’ve seen examples of this, where this Parallax effect has been used before—it’s a little bit of a buzzword these days, but it can be used to animate things that are fairly static and give them a little bit of depth and base.
Is there a deliberate effort to try and give each story a distinct personality in the way it’s presented?
AK: There’s a lot more similarities behind the scenes to these things. Not that that’s important to the readers, but we’re sharing a lot of the same components and code base and tools, and things that make the building of these things more modular and repeatable as we develop these “special story” formats.
Steve Duenes: I think the hope is that they all feel like they’re a part of the Times, but really the idea here is to make stories into more of an experience. If you push in that direction, you’re developing visuals around the character of an individual story, and you’re definitely going to be moving in different visual directions from story to story.
“Tomato Can Blues” also has fewer bells and whistles than “The Jockey” did. Why is that?
SD: I’m somewhat allergic to the phrase ‘bells and whistles,’ because I think that it’s not really the point. It’s not to take and decorate articles—that not what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to push into the territory of making stories into experiences, into integrating multimedia as part of the reading experience, so that it doesn’t seem separate from the reading experience. It is in line with how you consume and are consumed by those stories.
We don’t think of them as ornaments that we hang off the story once the written story is done. We’re thinking about creating elements that communicate part of the story in a medium that tells it best. You can write about the experience a jockey has when he’s on a horse, but we can actually show you that experience with a point-of-view video in “The Jockey.” So, that video is substantive—it’s content. It’s not a ‘bell and whistle’; it is increasing your understanding of what that character’s experience is.
Are there more stories like this in the works?
SD: There are definitely more stories like this in the works, And by “like this” I mean all kinds of stories that become experiences in different ways. There are serious stories, investigative stories. There are stories that are more like adventure stories. There will be more sports stories developed this way.
AK: We’re kind of coming back to this idea that some people want to take some time and have a little depth with something and enjoy it. Having fun is part of that, but also having a really well-thought-out experience through that article, and all of its supporting components. It’s sort of what we’re aiming for.