Multi-Media Storytelling: the Missing Link for Engagement?

The internet can be overwhelming at times. This is the understatement of the year, but with all of the information available at our fingertips, many writers, publications, and websites have to fight to catch the attention of the all-consuming cyber public. At the forefront of this fight is the explosion of the multi-media storytelling, a ubiquitous format that is transforming how we read and consume content.

The premise for multi-media storytelling is simple. Rather than providing readers with an extended journalistic story with a few photos interspersed, the format presents the main text of a story in a slick package that includes videos, quotes, photos, infographics and audio as well. The front-facing goal of these pieces is to present a fuller picture of the reporting and immerse the reader, but it also allows for writers to add in bells and whistles that could increase readership and retention, giving publications more eyes open to their advertising efforts. These multi-media stories are the result of a design-oriented approach to web engineering, where web-designing efforts are able to be more accessible and more complex.

In reading the two assigned multi-media pieces (“Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek” and “A Game of Shark and Minnow”), I noticed that the layouts for these stories closely resemble the involved and design-centric presentations of print magazines. In a magazine, the text is the main focus, but it is presented in such a way to make it eye-catching to potential readers flipping through the publication. In my opinion, the magazine approach to journalism is just transplanted into a different medium, where design jobs are dwindling in print, but flourishing on the web.

In my personal experience, I have been reading articles and stories like these for the past few years. While I had never read the two assigned pieces before, I remember reading similar pieces, like Patrick Hruby’s profile on drug-fueled pitcher Dock Ellis and Laura Snape’s feature on UK rock band Savages, which were published around the same time period. Looking back at the end of 2015, these presentations feel like an everyday part of life to anyone who consumes content on the internet. Many websites and publications have adopted features from the format, opting to showcase their content through clean and responsive design (I always think of the presentation of the Onion’s The A.V. Club). Even smaller publications like the Omaha World-Herald are using multi-media formats for bigger stories, to varying degrees of success. Overall, the consensus is that this mode of presentation is not a waning fad, but a relatively permanent fixture of the internet at large.

One of the benefits of this format for the classroom is the inherent multi-modality of the format. Students are required to use their reading skills in order to learn most of the information in a piece, but they also have audio, video, and graphic cues to help flesh out the story and create new connections with the content. Plus, in my opinion, students would be more motivated to read materials that are not just a wall of text. I can’t tell you how many times in my last field experience that students complained about having to read an eight-page short story in two days. (For the record, I had little sympathy for them as an English student who has to read upwards of 100 pages a week.)

If the name of the game for education is “engagement,” then implementing these multi-modal pieces in the classroom should be a no brainer, right? Unfortunately, there are some factors that prevent educators from fully implementing the professional-looking multi-media form. The first roadblock seems to be the level of effort required to produce functional multi-media presentations. In Rebecca Greenfield’s analysis of the format for Fast Company, she states that, “Snow Fall required lots of resources: The Times brought in a physicist to recreate the avalanche, for example. Not even the paper of record can afford that level of production on a regular basis.” On top of the monetary cost to produce engaging presentations, the learning curve is steep to effectively use design tools in the classroom. As far as I know, I don’t know of any tools that would be able to produce similar presentations, outside of the standard Powerpoints, Keynotes, and Prezis of the world. If a teacher has their time split amongst six classes, one can argue that their time could be better used in creating similarly engaging materials that require less effort to produce.

Plus, the engagement of these pieces isn’t guaranteed every time. Greenfield also spoke to the limitations of the format, arguing “These projects risk over-design, leading readers to scroll past the reporting to gawk at looping videos.” While I agree that these multi-media bells and whistles can immerse readers in the piece, it can also distract from the true star of the presentation, the story. On top of these concerns, the access to technology remains an ever-vigilant problem. If a student isn’t able to view your materials on their own time, due to limited access to a computer or the internet, is it worth the investment of your effort? I side more towards the negative column in this argument, as I feel like accessibility needs to guide instruction, and not the instruction dictating the needs of your students.

Ultimately, I think that this format is an interesting, but flawed, evolution of journalism as digital print continues to dig in as the de facto medium of consumption. While I am certainly hesitant to invest a lot of time and effort into these materials, I can definitely see that it has benefits to students outside of the traditional ways we present information. If anything, I would love to take some of the individual features of these multi-media presentations and integrate them into other forms of instruction.

So, what did you think of the readings? Could you see yourself integrating more materials like this in the classroom? Have you found tools that can produce multi-media materials with ease? How would you make sure students have access to these materials?

Until next time,
William

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3 thoughts on “Multi-Media Storytelling: the Missing Link for Engagement?

  1. William,
    I love how you included questions at the end of your post that readers can address in their comments. Thus, I have decided to respond to one of your questions: “Could you see yourself integrating more materials like this in the classroom?” For myself, I would say that yes, I could see myself integrating materials like this in my classroom, but with a few qualifications. First, I wouldn’t ever use either of the stories that we were read this time around in my own classroom. Why, you might ask? Because they were so long. In my post, I mention that I found the reading to be interesting and engaging. I ought to have qualified this by saying that I would have found it significantly more engaging if the articles had been shorter. It took me quite a long time (I’d rather not say exactly how long) to read through both of the articles, and while the displays helped keep me interested, overall, I wish each of them had been about a fourth of the length that they were. I would certainly never give high school or middle school students articles of that length to read all in one sitting. You said that students complain about having to read an eight page short story, and I can only image how they would complain about having to read articles of this length. One problem with these articles being born and published solely on the web is the fact that because of this, there are no page limits. If these same articles were published in the traditional route, as articles in a print edition of the newspaper, they would have been significantly shorter. Each of them would have been maybe two or three pages at most, and that would have been enough to communicate the points of the articles effectively, though probably less interestingly. Most news articles in print have a length limit as dictated in inches, because there is a limited amount of space in a newspaper, and the longer the paper is, the more money it costs to print it. That problem does not exist with the internet. For the most part, you can post an unlimited number of words and pictures on a web-based source without it costing anything, or at least anything more than it would normally cost. I think the idea of the multi-media story is great, but the length of these articles definitely drove the “readability” of the articles down, and this would be much worse for most students. However, if I can find multi-media stories that have a more reasonable length that could keep students interested.

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  2. You had a lot of great points here. When I think about including a story like the Snow Fall one in my class, my initial reaction also was that it would be too long. However, I didn’t really think about the problem of kids scrolling through the story just to see the pictures and videos. This was a great point. I think the concept presented here is great for kids. The concept being the interactive texts. However, in order for this to work, two things have to happen. First, the students need to be interacting with this kind of text on a regular basis. If this were the case, and the interactive text were the norm, maybe students wouldn’t be only interested in the videos and moving images. Also, we have to use this kind of style in our textbooks as well, not just supplementary works. I think students that have interactive text books and are taught to use them well could be very successful.
    Another option you could have with this type of writing would be for groups of students to create one over a certain topic. Talk about a new spin on a research project!

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  3. As a student, I always appreciate the visual break in text where I can see and interpret a visual representation of the material. I am an advocate for the bells and whistles only to the end that it enhances the meaning and understanding of the content. I am also very old-fashioned. One of my biggest concerns with the new generation of students is that the technology that throws images, videos, and audio clips in place of full text breeds an expectation that everything will have short cuts and easy answers. I think that it is important that the visually-saturated pieces are used only to supplement and foster a fuller understanding, and that the concerns surrounding its use over are clearly communicated and critically viewed with students.

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