Visual storytelling lessons from Fairfax
"You can't put just everything in"
We know that crafting an engaging, multimedia story takes much consideration and editorial decision-making. Even for larger media organisations like Fairfax Media in Australia, where there may be resources available for the creation of rich media, the success of the story will come down to how a carefully selected assortment of those assets are brought together, to tell a specific story.
So how is that process best managed? How do you know which images are vital, and which are surplus? And how can you best plan a visually-powerful narrative?
We spoke to Mark Stehle, art director at Fairfax Media. Fairfax uses Shorthand Pro to deliver some of its long-form, multimedia storytelling online – just a few great examples include Cry me a river, Planting hope and The newest island on Earth. Mark discussed how he and his colleagues approach such stories, particularly in terms of planning, preparing and selecting media to stand alone, or add impact and meaning to other content – and these are the key lessons we've drawn out of his experience.
As always, the story takes centre stage
"It’s a bit of a case-by-case situation"
When it comes to deciding when to give a story a more media-rich, immersive treatment, where the content is delivered full-screen in a parallax scrolling story, Fairfax keeps itself open to opportunities. But throughout, the key question is what the story is, and specifically, is it going to be a story that will demand the sort of audience that warrants the extra effort?
"For us the most important thing is the sell online," Mark explains. "If it’s a story that's got great images, is a great story, but that we can’t promote well on the homepage, it’s probably not worth putting all that effort in the presentation."
But even if a story has been given "the thumbs up", the actual way in which it is delivered comes back to the story itself, rather than having a formulaic approach to multimedia, immersive storytelling.
"We’re still doing a few experiments with this type of storytelling. It’s a new format for us that we have used in a few different ways already. There’s not really a rulebook for us when we use that."
And ask yourself whether the story is enhanced by the media
"Does the multimedia help the narrative?"
As well as considering whether the story is strong enough, there's also the consideration of whether a media-rich treatment will make a positive difference to the way the story is told. And if so, the same logic can be used to decide which specific images, video, graphs, maps etc make the final cut.
"I think the most important decision is, does the multimedia help the narrative?" Mark says.
"If we think we can tell a better story – using full-screen images, or [if] we edit galleries and video – and a more engaging story, then we try and do that."
One example of this is making the decision of whether or not to include audio with autoplay video. The default within Shorthand Pro is to mute any sound within autoplay video, but Fairfax has experimented with bringing the audio back in where they feel it adds to the impact of the video. But only if it does.
In Cry me a river, for example, pictured below, the title section video places the reader in the boat, and the accompanying audio which delivers the humming sound of the boat adds another dimension to the introduction.
"We don’t put the sound on for the sake of it," Mark explains. "But, especially with the 'Cry me a river' story, something was missing there without the sound. I think the sound really helps to put you in that situation."
He added that any autoplay video needs to be "something that’s easy to loop", and advises careful consideration on the volume depending on the type of sound.
"If it’s annoying you might want to turn it down a little bit, but I think it’s not such a major surprise to people anymore when suddenly some sound comes up.
"I think we might do some stories in the future where we don’t have the sound on. But where it works great it’s something we like to have with it."
"Sometimes a scribble is enough"
When planning a longer-form project (whether it's text, image or video driven – or a combination of all three) plotting out the key sections, chapters or elements to the narrative can be a helpful way to ensure focus on the key angle of the story, as well as consider the ideal flow and structure before creating the package online.
For Mark, like many others, storyboarding is a vital part of the process.
"If it’s a bit more complex, not just a video and two or three images, I would definitely recommend putting a storyboard together to get a feel for the ratio and the flow for the story and where you might want to add something to the narrative like a visual or video that adds to the story.
"We treat it in terms of prep like we want to lay out a nice story for print", he said, adding that it "saves a lot of time if you think about these things before you put them into Shorthand."
"We just do it on paper. Sometimes a scribble is enough, sometimes we do it quite complex in Photoshop and it’s just a translation, crop the elements out of Photoshop and put into Shorthand.
"But it just helps you to get your head around the content."
"It’s quite surprising to see just a full-screen video"
In previous Insights post we've talked about the importance of the title section, and how the text, visuals and layout of that first section can play a big part in the reader's ongoing engagement with the story.
Fairfax certainly don't waste this opportunity, delivering powerful visuals on their title sections that immediately give you a flavour of the story. And in some cases, they've even tried removing all text from the title section, and using just autoplay video (with or without sound) to hook the reader.
The video is often emotive, communicating atmosphere and meaning straight away – in essence the narrative of the story has already begun, and the lack of text perhaps serves to peak the reader's curiosity even further.
Mark explained that because readers are likely to have already seen the title of the piece, or a brief intro of some sort via social, there's sometimes less of a need to repeat that at the top of the story. So in some cases, they've instead considered a way to bring them into the story straight away in different ways.
"Once someone is there already, you want to keep someone on the page but you don't have to repeat the title straight away again.
"I think it really depends what kind of story that is. We did a few stories where the intro video was a bit of colour on the story, and was there to set you in the right mindset to read that story.
"Maybe a headline would have done a similar job but it’s also quite surprising to see just a full-screen video. It’s just another feature, it’s not something we want to do for every single story but it’s definitely part of our repertoire.
"If it’s a great video that’s introduction enough without words then we’ll definitely do that."
"You don’t want to interrupt the story too much"
While some may have limited resources in the way of images and video, others will be able to commission content for specific stories. But this requires focus in the brief, and the end selection.
As we've discussed before, constructing a flowing, engaging narrative, regardless of media format, is only possible where each part is a vital ingredient of the overall story. Adding everything risks a cluttered, unfocused experience – and for longer reads, more chance of losing their attention before the end.
Selection and structure of media in longer-form stories is something Mark works to ensure is just right for the story, and results in a well-delivered package of formats.
"There definitely needs to be the right balance in terms of text and imagery," he says.
"You can’t put just everything in... You don’t want to interrupt the story too much. We try and only add pictures or video to it when they will really help the story, when they add to the narration, even if it’s just to paint a bit of a picture or just put a moment in some part of the story.
"We try usually to storyboard each story before we start putting it in Shorthand so we get a better idea of the flow of the story and where we need maybe another image, or illustration or a map to explain what’s going on."
And make sure testing mobile is on the checklist
"Make sure you get the best experience for the story"
We know mobile is a key discovery platform, if not sometimes the most popular way in which stories are found and read online. And so not planning the structure, design and delivery of your story for that is a mistake, Mark says.
"We test the stories before we publish them, on the iPad and mobile devices and see how they look and feel."
Mark works through a checklist to ensure he's created the right size and crop for images, in some cases creating alternatives for portrait view devices, and will check the story structure feels like a great mobile experience, as well as wowing on desktop.
"Even if the traffic is sometimes lower on the mobile phone, it’s definitely something that I wouldn’t ignore because of that. You just want to get that right."
And so, regardless of what device you're looking at the story on, you shouldn't underestimate the power of your visual media in adding to the story, when used with care, and measure. Nor be afraid of trying out new ideas and approaches in how you use that media as early in the story as the title section, to communicate an event, an emotion or a place, in an engaging, visually-driven way.
Keen to see how others are approaching immersive storytelling? You can see more stories created in Shorthand Pro by Fairfax, and other organisations across the world, on our Pinterest board.