Pencil frame
Credit: Thinkstock

Most news outlets are keen to maximise the opportunities available on digital platforms to tell stories in the most engaging way as possible, to both attract readers to the content in the first place, and hold their attention.

There have been many stories which have given newsrooms the chance to flex their creative muscles, and think beyond the standard article 'box', perhaps the best known example is the New York Times's Snow Fall feature, detailing an avalanche which resulted in the deaths of three skiers.

This feature highlights some of the pointers shared by those experienced in producing compelling, long-form features, including Snow Fall's author John Branch. They share thoughts on how to tackle such a project, as well as how to find inspiration for smaller-scale interactives which can similarly help to deliver an engaging user experience.

Others sharing tips include Washington Post reporter Dan Zak who recently authored long-form feature The Prophets of Oak Ridge and director of digital, mobile and new product design at the Post Sarah Sampsel, as well as journalist and interactive designer Benji Lanyado.

1. Have a multimedia mindset from the start

In the early stages of his work on the Snow Fall feature, John Branch sent his managers a file of the interviews he had carried out so far with avalanche survivors. But at this point this was more to prove he "was actually working", as opposed to what actually happened, which was to get the ball rolling on what has proven to be a defining moment in the presentation of long-form digital journalism.

"It sort of began as just a typical story," he told "We had no great ambition early on in terms of multimedia, it was just a regular story.

"I went out and reported it and at some point I think mostly to prove to my bosses that I was actually working, on the other side of the country, I sent them a giant file of interviews with some of the people who had survived the avalanche and said 'hey, here's what I've got so far'."

He added that the content caused them to take "the pretty rare step, at least for the New York Times" of showing the material to others such as the "photo editor and the graphics editor and the multimedia editor and our video editor".

"They all took a look at the information that was passed on to them and said 'yeah, we're in'."

If we're going to blend the story, we might as well blend all the reporting as wellJohn Branch, New York Times
Branch said that looking back, there were no "regrets" about "how the process worked", but that next time, considering a story "in multimedia terms" from the start might be one lesson learned from the experience.

"Don't necessarily just write a story and then say 'ok, now can we add something?'

"If we're going to blend the story, we might as well blend all the reporting as well. I think it will be interesting in the next couple of years, as I do more of these kinds of stories, or as the Times does more of these stories, to see how early in a process we can get everybody in the newsroom involved."

2. Be realistic about time and resources for larger-scale projects

Projects with the wow-factor, like Snow Fall, dazzle readers and other journalists alike, but a common response is that not every newsroom has the resources of the New York Times to pull off a similar project.

Snow Fall, for example, took six months in total, although this was taking place alongside the demands of covering the presidential elections, the London Olympic Games and Hurricane Sandy.

"There were a lot of things that took priority over this," Branch said, "and that might have been one of the reasons why people saw this as a chance to do something fully as a presentation, because there was no real time element to it.

"We could really run it whenever we were ready and so it became not the priority for a long time."

And Lanyado added that it is important to remember that Snow Fall-esque projects are "a massive thing to undertake for a news organisation".

"From my experience of the UK there are barely enough interactive designers and front-end developers available to work on long-term, big product-management stuff, like making your CMS work, let alone things like this that essentially are quite indulgent and experimental and will be a loss-leader."

It comes down to how prepared a news outlet is to take the "risk", he added. "Media organisations in the UK just don't necessarily have the resources or are a little bit too risk averse to try and pull off something like that."

3. Be prepared to face some resistance (and come armed with the benefits)

As exciting as some of these projects may be, it does not mean everyone will necessarily be convinced from the outset. As Lanyado highlights, one of the key features of compelling narrative is a presentation which causes it to "break away" from the standard article structure, which not everyone will necessarily be sure about.

"You'd be amazed how difficult it is to convince people to break away from the normal templating of a CMS," Lanyado said. "Ultimately, unless you're building these on a bespoke article-by-article basis, which is something I actually do, you need to create something new within your CMS that can cater to this."

But, he added that while some may be unsure at first, "it's really good for newspapers to do this because it shows they're dynamic, it shows their content can appear in many different ways".
"I think if you land on a specifically tailored long-form article page or interactive you still know exactly where it's coming from if it's branded well."

Another question mark often placed over projects of this scale, is the potential for a direct return on the often significant  investment into time and resources. But he stressed that in his view, the focus should instead be on the value of an opportunity for the newsroom to show off the talent within.

This shows the capabilities of what we can do as a team and as an organisationSarah Sampsel, The Washington Post
"I think showing off what you can do is a huge part of what newspapers should be doing because it attracts brands to you, it makes your brand bigger. The New York Times won a Pulitzer because of it."

He added that "even if you can't convert it into hits and ad impressions and money, the brand equity that you get out of it is huge."

Sarah Sampsel said for the Washington Post, for example, working on these sorts of beautiful, long-form and engaging digital projects, places "a focus on the quality that we bring".

"This shows the capabilities of what we can do as a team and as an organisation; it's also a nice opportunity to focus on the brand of the Washington Post and really highlight the quality journalism that we bring."

And the immersive nature of the content means time spent on these features is "one of the most improved metrics" at the Post, she added. "It's dramatically high. Not only is it a really long piece but you can tell people are really engaged with it."

4. Avoid a design which overwhelms

Following the release of Snow Fall, Branch said he was often asked if he was "worried that the presentation itself would overwhelm your words".

"Of course my answer is absolutely not", he said, adding that the visuals not only "helped tell the story" but also assisted in bringing a wide audience to it.

"I think writing 17,000 words, I can use all the help I can get in terms of having graphics and photos and videos help keep the reader going, so I'm very grateful for that, and I think they helped inform the story.

"I think being able to see that fly-over video of the mountain itself (pictured below) was hugely informative. As much as I like to think I can explain things very well, it's not at all like being able to actually see it.

Snow Fall moving

"And secondly, once the story was published, the amount of attention it got was all good for me. I'm glad if people came to it who would not have otherwise read the story, people who might an interest in this kind of digital journalism, or digital storytelling, and that got them to the story, that's fantastic.

"That gets people reading and I don't think we really care necessarily what it is that gets people reading, we just want people to engage with it and that's what happened here."

We weren't trying to overwhelm you with quantity. It was more like we wanted to seduce you with the quality and I think it worked in this caseJohn Branch, New York Times
But he added that finding the right balance between the two was important, so as not "to overwhelm people with videos and a lot of things to click into".

"In their minds it should be something you could read all the way through and these things helped augment the text without interfering or taking you away from the text.

"So there was a conscious decision to be somewhat minimalist with this." In terms of the design this 'minimalism' came down to the smallest of decisions, such as keeping "colour tones muted", he added.

"We weren't trying to overwhelm you with quantity. It was more like we wanted to seduce you with the quality and I think it worked in this case."

At the Washington Post, Sampsel also referred to the steps it took to "spread out" the multimedia across the feature.

"You don't want to have too much clustering in one area," she said, "you want to spread it out a little bit and keep people into the story and keep people scrolling deeper and deeper."

And as well as not overwhelming the reader, there are also interesting conversations going on about how to ensure the multimedia does not impact on the way the story itself is written, but instead acts in a complementary, rather than competitive, way.

Branch said that at the New York Times "there were discussions early on about whether or not this would have to be written differently or whether or not there might have to be some changes in the way certain parts of it are written", such as to make way for a piece of audio or video.

"In the end we didn't do any of that," he said, "but I think it was an interesting conversation to have".

"I'm sure we've probably had it since then and I'm sure a lot of newsrooms will continue to have these conversations about whether or not we change the way we write stories to make room for or in light of the multimedia that's part of the storytelling."

Similarly at the Post, Zak said the online presentation "had little if any impact on how I wrote it or how the piece was edited".

5. Use the talent in your newsroom

Particularly in larger-scale projects, teamwork is key to an effective end product, and many of the big digital storytelling projects we have seen recently have provided news outlets with great opportunities for collaborations between the newsroom and other departments within the outlet.

Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you about this stuff, and people to whom you can express what you want and can then make that into a realityDan Zak, The Washington Post
Dan Zak, who wrote the Post's recent long-form feature The Prophets of Oak Ridge said it is important as the journalist to "surround yourself with people who are smarter than you about this stuff, and people to whom you can express what you want and can then make that into a reality".

"With web design like this you need people who know what they're doing technically, who have both a technical proficiency and a sensibility about storytelling and I think as long as you find and rely on those people, you're able to get the best result possible.

"So if anything this experience reinforced the importance of making sure that a proper and diverse team of talent is enlisted."

The teamwork approach taken with these digital projects also helps when it comes to considering which stories will work best with this form of online delivery, as Sampsel explains. "Something like this, it's a co-ordinated effort between a lot of different types of people in an organisation, so a lot of what we're looking for is something that is the best of all of those worlds.

She said that the Post is looking for immersive experiences. "We also want something that has a lot of visuals, whether that's multimedia, video, photos, illustrations, or the potential to have a beautifully designed layout, something that has the breakdown of chapters or needs graphics. It just needs to have more components than your typical story."

Once something is identified as a candidate for something like this, it's a matter of getting the right people in the room together to discuss potential next stepsSarah Sampsel, The Washington Post
And when it comes to working collaboratively, communication is paramount, she added, both during the production process and in the initial setting out of roles and responsibilities. It is also important to have milestones, she explained.

Sampsel also suggested newsrooms make sure people are on the lookout for other opportunities for a digital presentation beyond the norm. This can help to "identify these opportunities early in the process", she added, "and then once something is identified as a candidate for something like this, it's a matter of getting the right people in the room together to discuss potential next steps".

6. Think carefully about advertising

Different projects take different approaches to the monetisation of this content. The Prophets of Oak Ridge, for example, features a video advert before direct access is given to the feature, while Snow Fall chapters feature adverts within the feature itself.

Branch said that he does get asked whether the project "made money", and his response is both that he does not know and that was not part of the brief. "No one's ever said 'your stories must make money'," he said, adding that he is "sure it did not". "There's an intangible benefit here for the Times," he added, "and I don't think we're looking at each story to make money".

But in the case of Snow Fall, the decision was taken to include advertising within the feature following some "debate".

"I know we all weren't crazy about that but we said 'hey, you have to have ads', this is the business we're in," he said.

"It was only after it ran that our CEO Mark Thompson brought up the thing .... and said 'why did we put ads in there? We need to think about these things. This was such a beautiful presentation, why did we gum it up with ads? Maybe we should think about things like sponsorships'.

"So I think it forces us to think about from a business angle, these kinds of things", Branch added.

7. Think multiplatform, but don't be ruled by it

With many news outlets seeing mobile traffic on the increase, considering not just the desktop user experience, but also mobile phone and tablet experiences, is an important part of the process when delivering big multimedia digital projects.

Sampsel said that for The Prophets of Oak Ridge, for example, the news outlet wanted to create "a fantastic reading experience across all devices".

"We have a lot of traffic from search and social and some of it lands on our mobile website and some of it lands on our desktop," she said, "but we have a lot of people that come directly to our mobile experience and use our iPad app and use our site on their iPad. So we know we have to cater to all these different types of use cases and how people want to consume this content."

In order to offer a better experience on smaller devices, such as the smartphone, some changes were made with mobile in mind, including running the feature over three pages rather than one long page, and editing images "to make them fit a little bit better in small screens".

It is important to make sure the mobile audience is catered for, but I also don't think there's any harm at all in making something really quite beautiful and compelling, that's specifically for desktop usersBenji Lanyado, interactive designer
For Lanyado, ensuring a good mobile experience is great, but he said sometimes criticism of a mobile version of a project which was made with desktop in mind can be unfair.

"Ultimately you are not going to get the same level of visual impact and interactivity on a phone, compared to what you get on a desktop, he said.

"It is important to make sure the mobile audience is catered for, but I also don't think there's any harm at all in making something really quite beautiful and compelling that's specifically for desktop users."

He added that those criticisms also often come from within the journalism community.

"So I think even though we might be pernickety about it and say 'oh well it's not 100 per cent optimised for all platforms', the average punter was pretty blown away by it." He added that ultimately, "these things should be applauded".

8. Harness the power of social sharing

It seems that as well as becoming what Lanyado described as the "pinnacle" of long-form, Snow Fall also served as a powerful illustration to the New York Times of the importance of social media in driving audiences to its content.

According to Branch, the Times remains passionate about its homepage and as such, does "try to bring people to our homepage and then let them explore".

Just before Snow Fall was launched a taster was sent to key Twitter users in the newsroom to share with their followers. And the result? "The thing went nuts", Branch said.

"It was only after we saw how many people came to the story through Twitter, through those feeds, as opposed to coming to our homepage, that we realised 'wow, we've been missing the boat a little bit on this'.

"I think something like half the traffic to that story in our first day, came from outside, as opposed to straight from through our homepage. It really opened our eyes."

9. Consider different opportunities – not every project has to be a 'Snow Fall'

While many of the examples being held up as inspiring case studies are fairly sizeable projects, not every piece of compelling narrative has to be on that scale.

Lanyado's work in interactive storytelling, for example, is usually based "on a three or four day turnaround for a project".

"Technically speaking the front-end skills involved are knowledge of html, css and jquery. If there is user interaction and database level stuff then you'd need a back-end language, but the stuff that's essentially a visual way of telling a story, that's it.

"It's to do with combining images and embedding video and making fonts look different and that's all front-end stuff."

At the Post, the potential for "more simplistic" opportunities in this area are being considered alongside the "grander scale" projects.

"I think the opportunity is there," Sampsel said. "It doesn't have to be a large group of people that gets this together. You could have a designer, a developer and a writer working together."

"A small organisation might have many other things on the priority list, but if you target these opportunities early enough you can set yourself up to create something that does highlight the story and the journalism that shows the capabilities of what an organisation can do."

And even for those hoping to one day produce Snow Fall-like features, the rate of technology development could mean this day comes sooner than some might think.

"While I realise that a lot of papers can't do this now," Branch said, as "they don't have teams of graphic artists the way we do", he does not know "where technology's going to go".

"Some of those graphics, which might have taken one of our artists several weeks to do, I would not be surprised at all if in three or four or five years it's something somebody can do in one shift, in a few hours".

"Technology is changing so so fast that it's hard to imagine but I think we'll look back at Snow Fall and people will say, 'oh yeah that was quaint, that was cute back there in 2012/2013', but we know that's the case.

"We'll look back it and by a few years from now we'll have blown past it in terms of the technology and in terms of how we wow people, and so I think the technology will catch up and will allow smaller newsrooms to do this kind of thing, probably faster than we know."

10. Experiment, experiment, experiment

In summary, regardless of the scale a news outlet is working on, newsrooms need to be given the opportunity to experiment.

"This stuff doesn't happen enough," Lanyado said. "Ultimately, as a share of resource within news organisations, interactive design and actually also taking risks and experimenting with how content can be delivered, is so, so rare and I think that's actually a tragedy."

The problem is that newspapers believe that in the current climate they "can't afford to take risks, they need to make sure the core product is good enough".

"I'm from a school of thought that says of course that's right and in terms of the way you're developer resource is divided you probably need the majority of developers working on day-to-day products, however, there are so many creative developers within journalism these days whose skills are slightly wasted frankly, on doing the boring day-to-day pixel shifting database management stuff.

"They need to be allowed to experiment. You get certain news organisations these days that have got massive developer floors, 40 or 50 or 60 developers of which 10 or 20 of those are really talented front-end developers that could be making a Snow Fall every week but they're not.

"That's one thing that can be learnt from this and I hope that if it takes the New York Times winning a Pulitzer for interactive content to get other news organisations to realise we need to start experimenting and showing off a bit then that's a great thing.

"Despite all the ways you can pull holes in this kind of content, I think that's the moral of the story for me."

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).