There are other places on the Web that experiment with documentary-style storytelling. Honkytonk.fr is one that Duy Linh Tu, a multimedia expert and coordinator of the digital media program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, likes to keep an eye on. The French multimedia production house posts video stories that include many clickable boxes, giving the viewer options for which parts of the story to pursue. Its presentation is not unlike those children’s books that tell you to skip to page 53 if Sharon opens the door, or to flip to page 11 if she keeps it closed. The topics vary, from Euro rock-and-roll to oil industry practices in the Amazon. “It’s really innovative, but also really tedious,” Duy says. “It forces me to click around, so I don’t get a narrative. When I watch video, I expect you to tell me a story.”
Travis Fox, the Emmy Award-winning video producer and pioneer of online multimedia journalism, agrees. “Telling stories online is not as different as people think,” he says. “There’s a debate at the beginning of every Web production about how interactive to make it. I believe you just need to tell a good story and keep it simple.”
I had the privilege of watching Fox do just that when we traveled together as Washington Post correspondents in China’s Sichuan province, after the massive earthquake in 2008 that killed nearly 90,000 people. I wrote my own piece from the top of a rubble pile a couple of days before Travis arrived, but it is his video story from the devastated town of Beichuan that still haunts me. Fox’s position was eliminated at the Post and he’s on his own now, doing work for PBS’s Frontline.
Frontline is innovating on the Web, Fox says, but following more of a “DVD model,” by showcasing its main feature—often a full-length documentary—and then adding extras. “They’re not changing the centerpiece journalism, but adding more stuff,” he says. Raney Aronson-Rath, Frontline’s senior producer, argues that “Cracking the digital narrative is our future.” With a $1 million grant from the Verizon Foundation, Frontline was able to build a first-rate site as a companion to its ninety-minute documentary, Digital Nation, which aired on PBS earlier this year. The Digital Nation site went live in March 2009, a year before the documentary was to be broadcast, and filmmaker Rachel Dretzin plunged herself into a world of unusually transparent reporting—posting rough cuts and raw footage for feedback.
“I had to take a deep breath and say I was going to trust the process,” Dretzin said. She posted fifty-one rough cuts, eighty-two interview excerpts and at least nine other Web-special pieces as she built the documentary.
After Digital Nation aired, Dretzin and her team held an online roundtable discussion to debate which was more satisfying—the Web site experience or the ninety-minute broadcast. Some, like Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation and an English professor at Emory University, wrote that the documentary “plays fair with both sides and gives ample airing of different views.” For others, the Web was the winner. Henry Jenkins, a communications professor at the University of Southern California, wrote that while he found the documentary to be “mind-numbing and relentless,” he found the Web site “to be an extraordinary resource,” largely because it is “multi-vocal, allowing many points of view.”
Dretzin and Frontline executive producer David Fanning agreed that the experiment with Digital Nation’s Web site was a step toward better understanding of how to do documentary-style journalism on the Web. While recognizing the more free-ranging nature of Web viewing, Fanning still values the conscious story-building talents of directors. “Random video is disposable,” he says. “Our interest is in creating a video that connects and stays connected to its context.”
My editor calls the story you are reading a cri de Coeur. Perhaps he’s right.
My heart is with news organizations like the Detroit Free Press, whose multimedia efforts remain strong. The paper has won four Emmys in the past three years, including one in 2010 for its unusually intimate multimedia series on Christ Child House, a foster care center for legal orphans on Detroit’s west side.