Charting Documentary's Futures: An Interview with MIT's William Uricchio (Part One)

Profile: William Uricchio of MIT's Open Documentary Lab from Submarine Channel on Vimeo.

For the better part of a decade, William Uricchio and I worked side by side, partners in crime, as we forged the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT. I came to lean heavily on his diplomatic skills, his zen-like temperament, and especially his broad range of knowledge and interests, as between us, we touched every student who came through that masters program. The expansive intellectual rationale of our approach to Comparative Media Studies was as much his as it was mine, especially as he made the case for why we should understand contemporary developments in relation to their historical antecedents and as he made the argument for bringing more transnational perspectives to bear on the processes of media change.

I returned to Cambridge during my academic leave this fall, after being away for most of the past seven years, and it was a chance for me to develop a stronger sense of what the program has become, how it operates today.  What I found was a program that was thriving -- fantastic students doing ground-breaking work, a expanding and strong intellectual community, a solid focus on social justice and media change, and a real commitment to research that is going to have impact beyond the academy. Amongst many new research initiatives, there has been the emergence of the Open-Documentary Lab, a vibrant community that has drawn together researchers and documentary producers from around the Boston area who want to explore the future of nonfiction media-making. And the Lab has begun to attract active interest from around the world from people at places like the Canadian Film Board or the BBC who share their interest in understanding how documentary is being reinvented in the context of today's participatory culture and transmedia production.

Here's how the lab describes itself on its home page:

"Drawing on MIT’s legacy of media innovation and its deep commitment to open and accessible information, the MIT Open Documentary Lab brings storytellers, technologists, and scholars together to explore new documentary forms with a particular focus on collaborative, interactive, and immersive storytelling. The Lab understands documentary as a project rather than as a genre bound to a particular medium: documentary offers ways of exploring, representing, and critically engaging the world. It explores the potentials of emerging technologies and techniques to enhance the documentary project by including new voices, telling new stories and reaching new publics. A center for documentary research, the Lab offers courses, workshops, a fellows program, public lectures, and conferences; it incubates experimental projects; and it develops tools, resources, reports, and critical discourse. These activities, and the partnerships with artists, journalists, technologists, and media makers that they have enabled, aim to push documentary’s boundaries and deepen the impact and reach of innovative reality-based storytelling. In the spirit of MIT’s open courseware and open source software movements, the Open Documentary Lab is inclusive, collaborative and committed to sharing knowledge, networks, and tools. ‘Open’ in its understanding of documentary’s forms and potentials, the Lab is catalyst, partner and guide to the future of reality-based storytelling."

This fall, the Lab released an important white paper, “Mapping the Intersection of Two Cultures: Interactive Documentary and Digital Journalism” that MIT’s Open Documentary Lab prepared with the support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.  Under the supervision of the lab's Principal investigator, William Uricchio, the team developing this report included Sarah Wolozin, who directs the Open Doc Lab, and Lily Bui, Sean Flynn and Deniz Tortum, who are CMS grad students.

The report is rich in front-line perspectives, describing the behind-the-scenes debates that took place around the production of some of today's most significant examples of immersive journalism and interactive documentary, and sharing some core insights about best practices for doing such work. The report is visionary in its scope yet it is also deeply grounded in the perspective of documentary producers and journalists, who live in the imperfect and transitional state of the here and now. I believe this report is going to open up some important conversations amongst many people who both fear and embrace the changes that are impacting the closely related worlds of news and documentary. I am therefore happy to have a chance to showcase this significant undertaking here, especially insofar as it has given me yet another chance to interact with my longtime friend and colleague, William Uricchio. What emerged through this interview is something really special to me as William thoughtfully and thoroughly responded to my probing questions, and certainly gives as well as he got throughout this exchange. I am bringing this interview to you in four installments across the next two weeks.

Most recent accounts of the state of journalism in the digital age have emphasized the bad news -- describing all of the risks and challenges -- but your report also describes some of the new opportunities and the ways that newspapers and other legacy media organizations are restructuring themselves to take advantage of the changing media environment. So, what do you see as some of the opportunities for new kinds of news and documentary production emerging at the present moment?

Yes, lots of doom and gloom out there! It helps to take a more analytical approach to the problems facing quality journalism and that has indeed resulted in finding a number of opportunities that can be of tangible use to legacy organizations at a moment of change.

I’d like to begin by invoking what’s always struck me as one of James Carey’s great insights into how we think about communication. Carey notes that we too often focus only on the transmission of information – and by we, I include academics as well as journalists. And with this narrow focus, we often neglect communication’s ritual dimension. Carey’s notion of ritual entails much more than the habit of reading a newspaper with breakfast or closing-out the evening news broadcast with tomorrow’s weather (yes, no matter how dismal the news, there will be a tomorrow!). Instead he understands ritual as creating shared concepts and habits by drawing on participation, sharing, association, and fellowship.

Facebook and Buzzfeed, while a little erratic on the transmission side, understand this and they and others like them have hard-wired ritual into their systems. And their user-base understands it as well. At a fundamental level, the opportunities for new kinds of journalism and documentary production turn not so much on the availability of new technologies, but rather on the use of those technologies to bring ritual into the picture. In other words, simply putting news content, no matter how good, online with the hope of expanding audience reach and engagement misses the point. Instead, finding ways to enhance user participation, to intensify immersive experiences, and to encourage sharing and community building all help to embrace the ritual dimension noted by Carey. It’s not so much about the de-professionalization of the news (in fact, our study focuses on quality journalism), as it is the expansion of news as a process that includes a community of participants, expanded textual forms, and a reconfigured production pipeline. Participation leads to greater engagement, inclusiveness, relevance … and better-informed communities.

Despite its rock-solid appearance, journalistic convention has transformed over the past several hundred years, and today we face an accelerated rate of change. Whereas for much of the 20th Century, journalism served as a definer of truths, today’s high-connectivity and intensive information flow have enabled new expectations and given journalism a new agenda, helping it to inform the connection between publics and sources, shaping conversations in addition to defining truths.

Our report approaches this shift by looking at concrete examples in recent interactive and immersive documentary and journalism. The past decade has seen some remarkable experimentation in fact-based storytelling (the Open Documentary Lab’s docubase  is the go-to place to see this work), some of which encourages users to explore multiple sides of a given issue, interacting with the material gathered and structured by journalists and documentarians. Our report basically takes a deep dive into lessons-learned and best practices that can be of use as journalism continues to transform.

Whether looking at how individual organizations such as The Guardian or Frontline have responded to these new demands, or looking at collaborations across organizations, or looking at the new workflows and interactions that appear on the individual project level, the report offers case-based insights into the developments that are changing the faces of documentary and journalism.

In some ways, your report is bringing together two forms of media production -- journalism and documentary -- that have historically been understood as distinct, even though they have both sought to get the public to be more aware and more responsive to urgent social conditions. These two fields often operate according to different professional ideologies and different standards of ethics. Why have they stayed separate for so long and in what ways are we starting to see some convergence between them?

If I had to boil the difference between the journalistic and documentary traditions down to a caricature,  I’d say that since the mid 1920s, journalism has been bound by a commitment to ‘facts’ and documentary by a commitment to ‘truth’. OK – both are slippery words, and the two are not irreconcilable. But an insistence on the ‘facts’ as journalistic fact-checkers define them can sometimes leave a larger truth hanging in the balance; and the pursuit of ‘truth’ can call upon innovative and imaginative strategies that would be nixed by any fact-checker worth her salt.

The distinction between the two is deeply rooted in institutional history, with the several hundred-year-old ‘fourth estate’, as Carlyle called the press, finding a protected niche in places like the US constitution and playing a fundamental role in governance in most cultures. In this context, an insistence upon verifiable data makes sense.

Documentary, by contrast, at least if we stick to the classic telling of the tale, emerged in the film medium in the form of a re-enacted, character-based drama that strove for a greater truth (Flaherty’s 1926 Moana), or what John Grierson later called ‘the creative treatment of actuality’.

Journalism has been long bound by professionalization, certification, codes of behavior and rules; while documentary has thrived as an eclectic intention-based assemblage of experiments (mostly formal), techniques (mostly narrative) and effects (mostly generating insight and empathy). Epistemological differences, institutional differences, media differences … even differences in which part of the academy they are studied … no wonder the two traditions seem to be worlds apart!

As I said, this description is something of a caricature, and these two non-fiction storytelling traditions have at times overlapped, especially in the domain of essayistic journalism or places like Frontline, where documentary makers hew to journalistic rules, and The New York Times, The Guardian and The Economist, all of which have in-house documentary units. But even here, an insistence on fact provides the bottom line for a story to count as journalistic, even if drawing heavily on documentary notions of story, character and engagement.

So what changed, and why do these two forms now seem more open to sharing with one another? The steady shift of users of both forms to mobile, digital platforms; the emergence of interactive and visually immersive forms of telling stories; and the popularity of operations like Facebook, Buzzfeed and Vice, have all put pressure on those who simply wanted to put the printed page, television feed or 16mm film online. Traditional newspaper readership and news viewership, like documentary viewership, are not only declining … but aging. And while troubling from a business perspective, this decline is of far greater concern to the needs of an informed public and the civic process.

True, the just-mentioned digital startups have embraced ‘news’ as part of their remit (and in the process, raided legacy journalistic organizations and made some very impressive hires), and some of them can claim vast communities of young users, but the quality, context and mission of that embrace is neither clear nor consistent. Indeed, the surfeit of information and the poor ratio of signal to noise that we are experiencing ‘out there’ makes the work of the tried and true legacy journalistic operations more important than ever.

It’s here that the new documentary provides a valuable set of assets for the journalistic endeavor, offering ways for it to keep core values while embracing a more user-centric and participatory ethos that makes the most of the new media ecosystem.

Documentary’s relative freedom from institutional constraint has enabled its makers to experiment in ways that are difficult for traditional journalists. Moreover, as journalism becomes more of a curator of information and shaper of conversations, documentary’s demonstrated ability to contextualize and explain through well-chosen instances has proven newly relevant. The interactive documentaries produced to date offer a compendium of approaches, interfaces, user experiences, tools and even strategies for working with crowd-sourced and co-created content all of which journalists can assess, draw from and transform.

So I guess I would say that by finding themselves in the same boat, both journalists and documentarians have discovered commonalities of purpose and technique. Interactive documentary is fast developing a repertoire of techniques that work well in today’s ‘digital first’ and increasingly participatory environment and digital journalism still commands considerable reputation and audience reach.

The dust has not settled, of course, but as we work towards journalism’s and documentary’s next iterations, the one thing that is clear is that they have more in common now than at any other point in their histories. And the best indication of this commonality takes the form of the many interactive features, data-driven stories and even immersive approaches to information organization that have been appearing with increasing regularity on the digital sites of leading journalism organizations.


William Uricchio is founder and principal investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, which explores the frontiers of interactive, immersive and participatory fact-based storytelling. He is also professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. William’s broader research explores the dynamics of new media, at times using a historical lens (old media when they were new, such as 19th Century television) and at times by working with interactive and algorithmically generated media forms (interactive documentaries and games in particular).

William has written extensively on topics ranging from high-culture in a ‘low’ medium (Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films) to Batman across media (The Many Lives of the Batman and its successor, Many More Lives of the Batman, just out with Palgrave and the British Film Institute!!!); from television in Nazi Germany (Die Anfänge des deutschen Fernsehens) to American culture in Europe (We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identity as well as Media Cultures); from panoramas and stereoscopes to the media constellations of the 1898 Sears & Roebuck catalogue; and from media obsolescence to ephemerality.  Guggenheim, Humboldt and Fulbright research fellowships as well as, most recently, the Berlin Prize, have supported his work. William has spent about half of his career outside the US in the Netherlands and as a visiting professor in Sweden, Denmark, Germany (Berlin & Marburg), and China.   See details and more at