Spider web
Credit: By You As A Machine on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Speaking at last week's news:rewired conference, John Crowley, digital editor at The Wall Street Journal, shared his tips for immersive storytelling and production.

One of the biggest challenges for any newsroom, said Crowley, is that journalists are at different stages of digital development, with some already thinking in terms of large interactive projects while others are not even using Twitter.

However, data visualisation can sometimes be the starting point for a story, as was the case with the WSJ's immersive piece on Golden Dawn, a far-right political party in Greece.

People talk about digital first, but this was data journalism firstJohn Crowley, WSJ.com
"People talk about digital first, but this was data journalism first," he said.

Greek anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas was killed following a street attack in September last year. A man was arrested, and according to this BBC News report, has "admitted supporting Golden Dawn", although "the party denied any involvement".

Following the killing, WSJ reporter Marcus Walker managed to obtain police data showing the calls and texts made on the night Fyssas died.

On its own, the data was "mostly illegible", said Crowley. However, when Walker began working with graphics director Jovi Juan, the two managed to piece together the data in a way that was much easier to digest.

Plotting an X and Y axis – where X was the events taking place throughout the evening and Y was data from 30 phones belonging to police suspects – the pair were able to show the phone activity taking place before and after Fyssas's death.

"You would normally say there was a flurry of phonecalls before and after his death but doing it this way showed that [in more detail]," explained Crowley.

Golden Dawn
Screenshot from graphics.wsj.com/golden-dawn

He also noted that although WSJ London does not have the same resources as the outlet's New York office, you do not need "a cast of thousands" to produce engaging immersive content.

Just six people worked on the Golden Dawn project. And it was a great success, with a bounce rate of just 14 per cent compared to 72 per cent for a typical WSJ article.

For The Wall Street Journal, it was also a way to cover the rise of Golden Dawn, which had won 7 per cent per cent of the popular vote in Greece and taken 20 seats in the Greek government.

"We would not have had this information without Marcus drilling down and working with Jovi to visualise this data in this way," explained Crowley.

He also highlighted The Crossing interactive, which used video and audio slideshows to tell the story of a African migrant who had risked his life to travel by boat from Eritrea to Lampedusa in the Italian Pelagie Islands.

A third example of where The Wall Street Journal has used immersive storytelling to great effect is Libor: The Spider Network, built on D3, which covers the recent Libor financial manipulation scandal and surrounding investigation.

The fully-moveable graphic lets users interact with the "web of connections", but also stresses that "connections do not represent allegations of wrongdoing".

Screenshot from http://graphics.wsj.com/libor-network

Despite having to carefully consider legal issues along the way, the end result was "hugely engaging," said Crowley, with more than 170,000 global page views since it was published last week, and a bounce rate of 46 per cent.

One of the reasons the Libor story was so engaging, he said, was that "you are literally interacting – you're touching it, you're moving it around".

All three examples, he added, showed how data could be used in a way "more accessible" to users.

To encourage opportunities for immersive storytelling, journalists must begin to think about storytelling in a different way, he said.

"What we said to our reporters is 'don't worry how it's going to look' – you send us the idea and we'll think of ways of using multimedia".

He also recommended that core digital teams should be allowed "a long leash" to work on their own projects, adding that it was only in the last few months his team at The Wall Street Journal had started to do this.

Finally, he said that immersive storytelling was only really worthwhile for those stories which do not have "a short shelf-life".

The Golden Dawn project took weeks, he said, while the Lampedusa story took four days to turn into an interactive, having already carried out the interviews and gathered other content.

"If you're investing a lot of time and effort into something that's going to be taken over by another project, then it's kind of pointless," he explained.

Correction: Golden Dawn secured 7 per cent of the popular vote in Greece, not 70 per cent, and 21 seats in the 2012 election, not 20. The bounce rate of the Libor interactive has also been clarified as 46 per cent, instead of 40 per cent.

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