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

You argue that the story should dictate the form, yet many aspects of the form of American journalism -- the inverted pyramid for example and the core shape of the lead paragraph -- have remain fixed without regard to the story. Some traditional journalists would argue that these formulas allows for quick production of news and for interoperability amongst collaborators. So, how do you make the case to such traditionalists for a broader range of different kinds of news stories? Journalistic form has changed continually over the centuries, some elements sticking and some new ones displacing old. Things like headlines and the inverted pyramid appeared for the reasons you mention, plus enabling readers to orient themselves and, when required, make quick work of the day’s news. They work well and seem to be sticking in the digital environment, arguably a predecessor of the ‘listicle’.

We are witnessing an evolutionary process, but one that is accelerated as much because of a change in the use of media technologies as because of a change in the larger information situation of the user and her attendant expectations. The move from print and broadcast to digital platforms has brought with it many new affordances, and while traditionalists can stick with techniques that have proven effective with the printed page or news clip (rightly arguing that the digital can easily incorporate the page and the clip), digital media technologies – including the small mobile screens that currently loom large in most user experiences – have been put to many other uses that could enhance both journalism and user engagement.

To be honest, I don’t know of any journalistic organizations, no matter how traditional, that have failed in their digital operations to make use of embedded links, or auto-generated links to past stories, or an array of user tracking applications. These have changed the presentation of news and relationship to the user, just as digital processes have changed the workflow within the newsroom. Their impact can be read as subtle or profound, depending on one’s point of view. But even the most traditional journalistic organization is acutely aware of Vice, Buzzfeed and Facebook’s Instant Articles initiative, their fast-growing market share, and appeal to younger readers.

Our report’s conclusion that ‘story dictates form’ simply means that there is no ‘one size fits all’ convention for storytelling. The digital has brought with it an expanded set of approaches, has offered new - and digitally relevant – options. The report says that now that we have more choices, we should use them critically and strategically – not just jump on the bandwagon of the new (or stick fetishistically to the old). A data-rich story might benefit from visualizations and even personalization through interaction; whereas the same techniques would add little to a personal profile. The new is no more a panacea than the old, but it does offer expanded choice.

But at a moment when the media ecosystem is fast changing, with consequences financial, informational, and generational, we need better to understand the affordances of the new. This by no means entails discarding lessons hard won over centuries of journalistic practice, but it also means not necessarily sticking to paper and broadcast-based habits just because they happen to be well established. And particularly as the role of the user continues to grow, journalists and documentary makers need actively to consider the fit of form and content rather than slipping into inherited defaults.

You correctly note that one of the strengths of legacy media is that they have such deep archives of materials that rarely get used. I am often struck by the ways that comedy news media dig deep into news archives to juxtapose current and past statements by political leaders, for example, and thus show contradictions in their positions over time. But even though such context can be very helpful in understanding current events, we rarely see it used by mainstream journalists. Are there good examples of how news organizations are tapping their archives?

The archive issue is a crucial one, both as you note, for giving depth, context and added meaning to a story … but also because it is something of an ‘ace in the hole’ for most legacy organizations. The very fact that these organizations have persisted over time usually means that they have perspective, memory, and archives.

The archive is an asset that results from long-term involvement with a beat, community, or nation, and as such is one of legacy journalism’s key distinguishing features from digital start-ups. Archives offer ways of telling stories that potentially differentiate and give a competitive advantage to legacy journalism organizations. As journalists intensify their efforts to contextualize and explain rather than just report, archives offer low hanging fruit.

Users, for their part, seem increasingly active, using Google or social media to supplement what they read in a given report, getting more information about a place or person or event. And -- to make it a trifecta -- digital technologies offer solutions for the space constraints that have long plagued print and broadcast journalists and the contradictory demands of readers, some of whom may want a short experience while others want a deep dive.

Wouldn’t it be great to give readers access to the documents referenced or summarized in a story, or to earlier versions of a story, or to see more than one or two images? While not for every user, it allows journalists to have their cake and eat it, too: a tightly formed ‘traditional’ story can be accompanied by in-house resources, accommodating both those users who just want the facts as well as those who want to discover them for themselves. And if we’re right about the move of journalism to become more of a curator of a public conversation, expanded use of the archive offers a terrific transitional tool. All to say, it’s never been easier nor more important to incorporate archival holdings into everyday journalism.

One of our case studies, Kat Cizek’s A Short History of the Highrise – a joint endeavor by Op Docs at The New York Times and the National Film Board of Canada – is a terrific example. Part of Kat and the NFB’s Emmy Award-winning Highrise series of interactive documentaries, A Short History’s partnership with the Times made brilliant use of the Times’ photo morgue to tell the story of man’s many experiments with vertical living. The interface is described as ‘a visual accordion’ allowing the viewer to ‘dig deeper into the project’s themes with additional archival materials, text and miniature games.’ The viewer can simply watch an archive-based video overview, but can also stop the video flow to explore the individual photos, listen to interviews, and even turn the photos over to see the traces of their history at the Times. The project accommodates both casual and serious viewers, makes brilliant use of the largely overlooked photo morgue, and in the process offers an insightful look both into the high-rise and how we (and the Times) have looked at it over the years.

A Short History picked up Emmy, Peabody, and World Press Photo Awards, so it’s an exceptional example. As with many of these early experiments, quite a bit of time and money go into developing a robust and user-friendly interface. But one can imagine that more examples will yield greater efficiencies, whether in the form of re-usable tools or even modifiable templates.

For example, back in 2009, the New York Times used a tool to slide back and forth across two photos taken from an identical position, but years apart. Called “Before and After”, it was used to good effect in a piece called “The Berlin Wall 20 Years Later: A Division Through Time.” The same basic device is still in use, for example in The Guardian’s “The American Civil War Then and Now”, offering an effective way to showcase the photo archive.

Another great example of the creative use of archives and tools comes from The Guardian’s “The Counted”, an ongoing, partially crowd-sourced, interactive report on people killed by police in the US. It’s an archive in the making, a living archive, piling up the sad details case-by-case, day-by-day, and doing something that only an archive can do: contextualizing historically the incidents that seem to happen three or four times a day across America, helping us to see the bigger picture.

Bottom line: archival resources allow today’s fact-based storytellers to harvest the riches of the past, bringing new life, context, and meaning to their findings. And digital media offer journalists the means and space and users the flexibility to make the most of these affordances.

Some of the more interactive elements you describe take time to develop and this means slowing down the pace of news production and taking a long view perspective of social issues. How can we reconcile this with the 24 hours a day news cycle and other factors which are speeding up the production, circulation, and consumption of news?

Temporality is one of the most intriguing dimensions of today’s journalism scene. On one hand, Twitter and other services have reduced the lag between event and report to just about nothing. OK, these aren’t traditional fact-checked reports, but in the aggregate they tend to give a first heads-up about breaking news, and even legacy journalism is making increasing use of tweets in their coverage. On the other, in a world bubbling with reports of all kinds and qualities, the need for context, perspective and plain old pattern recognition has never been greater.

The traditional 24 hour cycle is under siege from both sides: it can’t keep pace with networked digital sources, and has generally left the reflective contextualizing work to occasional investigative and feature stories or to specialized venues such as magazines and programs like Frontline. All to say that the time cycles that have worked for the better part of a century no longer seem to be addressing public needs.

The Guardian was quick to try to redress this, embracing breaking news (even minute-by-minute blog reports of the Republican and Democratic presidential debates or the Academy Awards), carrying on with the traditional 24-hour cycle, and redoubling its feature work. And it’s in this last context that they have carried out much of their interactive work. The verdict is still out on how legacy organizations will deal with this challenge – having it all, Guardian-style – won’t necessarily work for everyone.

The Guardian’s experimental stance has yielded some great innovative work that blurs the divide between immediate and long-term journalism. “The Counted”, that I’ve already mentioned, hews to the 24 hour cycle, but aggregates the daily updates, encouraging readers to look for patterns (age, ethnicity, location, etc.) as the data collects over the course of the year. It harvests the daily news, folds it into a larger context, offers analytic tools, and in the process renders the normally hyper-local into something of national import. In fact, it reveals that many incidents are not reported, or are reported so locally that the rest of the country has no idea of the scale of the problem.

So experiments like these that complicate the familiar temporalities and logics of journalism offer signs that multiple news cycles can intertwine, and actually contribute to one another to deliver a powerful set of insights that would otherwise be missed.

More generally, though, you are right: most interactives are like feature stories, ‘evergreens’ capable of drawing in users well after the initial publication date. And in this, they are particularly good at contextualizing, explaining, and offering multiple points of view.

For the moment, they are labor-intensive, but developers are sharing bits of code and tools among themselves, flexible content management systems  and even templates are beginning to appear, and in general the process is accelerating. Some thought leaders fear that these efficiencies could go too far, that the innovation that has driven new kinds of user experience will reify into rigid one-size-fits-all templates. And indeed, the front office has a habit of thinking about the bottom line and these are still early days in terms of expanded story form. But I mention this simply to say that it’s clear that these efficiencies can and will speed up the process, even though it is essential for leading organizations to continue exploring and building innovative story technologies that work with the platforms most familiar to the public.

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