Interactive storytelling takes traditional elements of journalism — words, pictures, data, videos, etc. — and uses web technologies to blend them into an immersive and unique online experience, often allowing the audience to interact with the content.
The best way to get a grasp on this type of content is by playing around with it yourself! I recommend checking out 2014: The Year in Interactive Storytelling, Graphics and Multimedia and 2013: The Year in Interactive Storytelling, Graphics and Multimedia.
A Bit of Background
The New York Times is in the business of telling stories. And for a while now, it has been quite good at doing just that. But what it means to tell a story looks different today than it did 100 years ago. To remain a world-class newspaper, the New York Times needs to deeply understand these changes and incorporate them into their product.
Perhaps a decade or two ago, it made sense to sit down with a copy of the Times at 7 A.M. and leisurely read from cover to cover. Today, our iPhones and laptops make that a whimsical, yet impractical notion. Our access to news is instantaneous, bountiful, and free.
To address the evolving habits of this digital news-reading audience (all 176 million of them), the New York Times must figure out how to do what it has always done best — tell stories — on a digital platform.
Understandably, what works in print is not what necessarily works best online. The web comes with a new set of innovative tools that gives the New York Times the opportunity to do something groundbreaking. So instead of simply pasting their print articles online, NYTimes.com’s interactive storytelling techniques are their efforts to present world-class journalism coverage in a unique and future-facing manner.
The Anatomy of Interactive
To start, let’s take a look at different types of interactive storytelling at NYTimes.com, and break down their features.
Multimedia features — like Snow Fall — are highly stylistic stories that weave together images, text, and graphics in an immersive web page.
- Introductory looping video: Many of these stories begin with a high-quality video that plays immediately when you load the page. The video is intended to set you in the scene of the story, and there’s usually no dialogue.
SEE: Snow Fall, A Game of Shark and Minnow, The Secret Casualties of Iraq’s Abandoned Chemical Weapons
- Parallax scrolling: Parallax scrolling is a computer graphic effect that makes the background of a webpage load at a different time than the foreground, creating an immersive experience. Several multimedia features use parallax scrolling or some riff off of it to build a sense of interactivity.
SEE: Tomato Can Blues, Russia Left Behind
- No analog to the print newspaper: Virtually all multimedia features combine high-quality video, photography, and sound in a way that is simply impossible in print.
SEE: Nepal, Before and After the Earthquake
- Interspersed maps and graphics: Together with parallax scrolling, the Times graphics desk often incorporates maps and explanatory features throughout a story, revealing more and more information as you scroll.
SEE: Riding the New Silk Road, A Rogue State Along Two Rivers
Data visualization displays information from large data sets in a focused and creative way. These elements are frequently featured in The Upshot.
- Rollover: Rollover effects allow readers to see more information about a selected section once they hover their mouse over the area. This is not only a great way to let readers interact with data, but it makes visualizations informative without cluttering the screen.
SEE: Mapping Poverty in America, How Senator John Walsh Plagiarized a Final Paper, Constellation of Directors and Their Stars
- User Input and Interactivity: These pieces prompt readers to enter information about themselves in order to explore the data in a more personal and relatable way.
SEE: Can You Live on the Minimum Wage? , Is It Better to Rent or Buy?, Who Needs a GPS? A New York Geography Quiz
- Visualizations and Animations: These features think beyond pie charts and bar graphs, instead using web tools like D3.js to represent numbers in unexpected and meaningful ways.
SEE: How the Recession Reshaped the Economy, in 255 Charts, Where We Came From and Where We Went, State by State, Kepler’s Tally of Planets
Explanatory graphics are in a similar category of data visualization, but instead of visualizing data sets, they use web tools to visualize tricky technical concepts.
- Lists, captions, & guides, oh my! Hard to describe until you click. This is explanatory journalism at its best.
SEE: What’s Next in the Search for Flight 370, A Viewer’s Guide to the Mayoral Candidates, How ISIS Works
- Animation: These explainers resemble video content, but they’re more interactive than passive.
SEE: What is the Higgs?, Snap. Hold. Kick. All in the Blink of an Eye.
- Maps on maps on maps: These maps are specifically designed to explain geographical stories in more innovative and immersive ways.
SEE: A String of Violent Storms Across the South and Midwest, Assessing the Damage and Destruction in Gaza, The Voting Blocs of New York City
When Snow Fall hit browsers in the winter of 2012, it caused, well… a flurry of reaction. The 6-part multimedia series about a deadly avalanche intricately weaved together text, multimedia, and graphic features to create a genre-defying piece of journalism. It wasn’t quite article or film, but something entirely unique to a web platform.
From skeptics to avid proponents, everyone had something to tweet about Snow Fall.
The multimedia piece received 3.5 million views and 10,000 Twitter shares in the first week. Later, it won the Webby, Peabody, and Pulitzer awards.
— Kathleen Raven (@inkkr) March 26, 2013
So as you can tell, Snow Fall was a big deal for the New York Times. “Snow Fall has actually become a verb,” Jill Abramson said last year. “’To snowfall’ means to tell a story with fantastic graphics and video and every kind of multimedia, and that is absolutely organic to the storytelling itself.”
But there was a problem. Snow Fall had taken at least six months to complete, and required the combined efforts of more than ten staff members. Further, it was built outside of the Times’s content management system, making it hard to replicate. As one of the biggest news organizations in the world, the Times had the required resources to pull off such a feat once or twice, but it would not be sustainable in the long-run. “We have a tendency to pour resources into big one-time projects…and overlook the less glamorous work of creating tools, templates and permanent fixes,” the New York Times Innovation Report noted in 2014. “We greatly undervalue replicability.”
NYU Students Said…
35% of NYTimes.com visitors are millennials, so I thought it would be appropriate to test the success of their interactive features on a set of young and engaged NYU students. I gave ten NYU students two articles to read – first, Graeme Wood’s long-form Atlantic editorial What ISIS Really Wants, and second, the New York Times’ explanatory graphic A Rouge State Along Two Rivers. The Atlantic piece is nothing more than text and images, and the NYT piece is an interactive that walks the reader through the geography of Iraq and Syria. The objectives of these pieces are different, but they’re both trying to tell a story about the same subject. I wanted to see who did a better job.
I tested ten NYU students, 90% of whom were my friends. Obviously, these results are not scientific, I simply wanted to add a few more voices to this review. The instructions I gave to the students were to read the articles on separate days (not back-to-back), and record their reactions. I also emphasized that they should focus on the quality of their experiences more so than the actual content of the articles.
- “I was surprised that I spent more time focused on the Atlantic article because the medium was not as attention grabbing. What I liked about the Atlantic article was that it was concisely written in a way that was intended to educate so I feel like I’ll probably retain more from the article in the Atlantic.”
- “I preferred the New York Times article. There’s been so much coverage of ISIS, but I’ve never really seen something like that scrolling map. It helped me get a sense of the geography in the minute I spent scrolling it, while the Atlantic article… yeah sorry there’s no way I’m reading all that.”
- “The NYT piece was also effective but it seemed like the information in it assumed the reader had done a decent amount of reading about the topic prior to reading this article. I bet a combination of these mediums would be really effective because after 10 minutes of reading the article in the Atlantic I was tired of reading so it would’ve been a good time to scroll through a map and see where all this stuff is going down.”
The New York Times’s interactive features are beautiful, compelling, and in my opinion, superior to those of its competitors.
That said, new interactive features are few and far between. Right now (a Wednesday night), there are no obviously interactive pieces headlined on the NYTimes.com homepage. It’s mostly just a bunch of standard text-and-image articles, and nothing has really caught my eye.
This is where the Times could lose me, a college sophomore who suffered from “tldr;” midway through the headline “Hillary Clinton Embraces a ‘Super PAC,’ Trying to Erode a Republican Edge”. The reason there are so few interactive pieces is probably because producing such content still takes a considerable effort from designers and developers.
But what I don’t understand is why the pre-existing interactive content is not more prominent on the homepage. In fact, the only way for me browse the interactive pieces is by typing “interactive” in the search bar. A better method for reaching that content would be to make use of a link like nytimes.com/interactive (which currently leads nowhere).
The Times could be using its excellent interactive content to make me care about all the probably-important headlines I just skimmed over. A great example of this is Who Needs a GPS? A New York Geography Quiz, which was attached to a traditional article called In New Exam for Cabbies, Knowledge of Streets Takes a Back Seat.
I probably would never have opened the article on its own, but the GPS quiz caught my attention, and I ended up reading the article, too. Serendipitous experiences like that are what make NYTimes.com special to me. If the site could more consistently entice me with these features, I think it would also be more successful in attracting and sustaining younger digital-only readers.
- New York Times, 2014: The Year in Interactive Storytelling, Graphics and Multimedia
- New York Times, 2013: The Year in Interactive Storytelling,
Graphics and Multimedia
- GitHub, The New York Times GitHub
- Poynter, Explore the Makings of Interactive Journalism
- Forbes, The New York Times GitHub
- Source, How We Made Snow Fall