Rethinking Digital Storytelling: There's Much More to It Than Just Tweaking the Format or Adding Hyperlinks

By Fernando, Angelo | Communication World, November-December 2011 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Digital Storytelling: There's Much More to It Than Just Tweaking the Format or Adding Hyperlinks


Fernando, Angelo, Communication World


What comes to mind when you hear the term digital storytelling? With so many opportunities to tell stories on so many different platforms, a number of definitions are emerging. Organizations such as the Center for Digital Storytelling, an international training and research nonprofit, offer workshops in the craft of producing digital stories using images, video and music--there is more to it than just tweaking the format or sprinkling the story with a few hyperlinks. Such training is good news for many of us today who are working cross-functionally, taking on the roles of data journalist, content curator and editor.

Digital storytelling has its challenges. Author Nicholas Carr believes that moving a story online might actually dull the experience, diminishing our contact with the "intellectual vibrations" of words put together by authors. Carr, who happens to be a prolific blogger, is no Luddite. His latest book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, is controversial but needs to be taken seriously if only because it speculates on the erosion of people's habit for "deep reading" when online. "My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles," he writes. "Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

So what do we do if our audience is swimming (or skimming) in a fast-moving current of information, unable to take much of it in? Matt Thompson, editorial product manager at National Public Radio, suggested once in this column that digital storytellers could sidestep this problem by obsessing less about immediacy and more about giving the story longer shelf life. I talked to two people who approach this differently in two areas: social networking and brand journalism.

Separating truth from noise

Vadim Lavrusik has given a lot of thought to digital storytelling via social networks. He is both the journalist program manager at Facebook and an adjunct professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where he teaches social media. He often talks about the building blocks of our stories and how we need to move them beyond lazy, webified formats. Indeed, he says we have unthinkingly crammed our stories into the boxes determined by web software and site architecture. "Today's web 'article' format is in many ways a descendant from the golden age of print," he explains. "The article is mostly a re-creation of print page design applied to the Web. Stories, for the most part, are coded with a styled font for the headline, byline and body, with some divs [that is, a

tag, used in HTML code] separating complementary elements such as photographs, share buttons, multimedia items, advertising and a comments thread, which is often so displaced from the story that it's hard to find."

At Facebook, Lavrusik has been conducting a study on how people are engaging journalists on Facebook, with hopes that the findings will provide journalists with some best practices and insights into how to better engage with and distribute news using the ubiquitous social media site.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Consider how you last clicked on a story someone sent you via LinkedIn or Facebook. Maybe you read only a snippet of the story before getting lost in the comment thread, rather than focusing on the deeper points of the story. The writer might have included many more issues than you had time for. Lavrusik talks of "separating the truth from the noise," whereby the journalist as communicator has evolved to something that is far more complex: "I think the role of the journalist has shifted from [being] not only a storyteller and reporter, but also an amplifier of information."

Looking for the "overlooked stories"

Business communicators have begun to look at their role as storytellers as well, performing what has been loosely termed brand journalism, where the "stories" created are outside the realm of public relations and marketing communications. …

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Rethinking Digital Storytelling: There's Much More to It Than Just Tweaking the Format or Adding Hyperlinks
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