The internet has made it ridiculously easy to access information. Traditional media outlets like The BMJ are having to compete even harder with each other for attention.
The internet has also made it ridiculously easy for everyone to share words, pictures, and sounds, and traditional outlets must also vie with citizen publishers for audience interest and time.
With traditional loyalties out the window, storytellers must work harder to attract and retain interest. Hence the quest for ever richer, more engaging, and more compelling articles.
Say hello to the “webdoc,” aka the web documentary—all singing, all dancing interactive digital experiences. These can combine written journalism with multimedia such as audio, photographs, and video but also diagrams, maps, slideshows, and explainers, as well as animation, interactivity, feedback, game play, timelines, Twitter feeds, presentations, and so on. They might incorporate the creator’s content—or someone else’s. They might be accessed from your television, your tablet, or your mobile phone.
Interactive articles allow for non-linear and multiple narratives, such as in The Journey to the End of Coal (2008), which makes the viewer protagonist, like an online non-fiction Choose Your Own Adventure book.
The webdoc’s interface can become essential to the story. See Gaza-Sderot (2008), for an elegant example.
Personalisation is possible. In The Shirt on Your Back (2014), about the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka, a running total shows how much a garment worker has made while you’ve been on the site—and how much clothes retailers have made.
Investigative journalism is particularly well suited to interactive presentation, Pirate Fishing (2014) shows, with background interviews and data available for detail lovers.
“Publishing” and “broadcasting” are becoming “conversations.” Some webdocs, such as World of Work (2014) use viewers’ data to tell their stories.
Beautiful huge-budget productions from The New York Times (Snowfall, 2012) and The Guardian (Firestorm, 2013) have rewritten the rulebook for longform journalism.
The Guardian now has a dedicated webdocs department. But projects don’t necessarily need £300,000 and a team of writers, filmmakers, photographers, designers, and developers.
Open source software allows individuals to make simple yet powerful interactives cheaply, for example, Dirty Money (2013).
Is all this investment, in effort at least, worth it? Snowfall won the Pulizer prize. Some 600,000 people saw The Shirt on Your Back and on average stayed on the site for more than 10 minutes. Average time spent on World of Work is more than 30 minutes. And these stories can bring in new audience; some 80% of viewers of Pirate Fishing said they’d never visited an Al Jazeera website before.
Shorter attention spans may be inevitable. Enriching content to tell stories in the most appropriate formats to achieve maximum interest and engagement needn’t mean dumbing down, and it’s already happening.
The BMJ is already an old hand at publishing audio and video as well as text, pictures, and diagrams, of course, and we’re recently added interactive infographics to the mix.
How can we take this further? What does the medical journal “article” of tomorrow look like, and how can we use this technology best to help busy clinicians? Let us know what you think.
Richard Hurley, deputy magazine editor, The BMJ.
Follow me on Twitter, @rich_hurley.