The New Storytellers: The Digital Revolution
I can easily explain the current nature of digital storytelling in the first paragraph of this essay. And if I do that, it will already be outdated and replaced by a newer style of digital storytelling by the time I get to the second paragraph.
I’ve been working as a journalist for the last 15 years, originally in documentary film and then in radio. In between, I went to graduate school with the notion that I wanted to be able to tell stories across media: print, video, or radio, depending on the story. I figured that the more ways I had to tell stories, the better my chances of making a living. I never thought technology, journalism, storytelling, and the Internet would converge to create such breakneck change.
When I started at the New York Times five years ago, I was charged with innovating on the Web. One of my first assignments was to record the sounds of toilets flushing at a children’s museum. Now we’re deep in digital storytelling, weaving text, audio, video, graphics, and photos, as we try to push the boundaries of storytelling.
At its core, digital storytelling hinges on a narrative; yet it’s often nonlinear, interactive, and invites audience participation. The last element is the most interesting to me. I recently returned from four days at the South by Southwest (SXSW) interactive festival in Austin, where I was speaking on a panel, “Sustainable Stories from Disposable Content,” about two Web series I produced over the past couple of years at the Times: One in 8 Million and Coming Out. Both of those projects built a community as the stories accumulated, and those audiences, in turn, helped to shape the projects.
On the panel, we explored how storytellers know who their community is and how to bring the community into the work. It’s important to identify who you’re telling stories to and for, which seems obvious but is essential. With the ability to collaborate and share online, a part of the storytelling process is about feedback, dialogue, and creating conversation. A sense of joint authorship exists. For this to be successful, it’s the journalist’s role to create the narrative framework so people will want to participate and will understand what contributions are meaningful.
As we push further with digital storytelling, whether it’s interactive documentaries, data visualization, gaming, or otherwise, this is a key question to answer: How can we invite participatory storytelling and keep the narrative clear, especially as we have more ways to tell stories?
Some people I met at SXSW are developing new interactive storytelling platforms; others, programs that allow newsrooms to add maps, graphics, audio, and video to an online story with ease. Programs such as these are answering to demands of journalism and the news—a fast-food version of what newsrooms like the Times spend months to execute, such as “Snow Fall,” a beautiful innovative multimedia story.
It is a bold and exciting future: one where we can explore new ways to tell stories, experiment with how to involve communities in that process, and work to connect individuals around the world through digital narratives. Now I must get back to work and figure out how it has all changed since I started typing here…
Sarah Kramer ’96 is a journalist and multimedia storyteller at the New York Times. Before working at the Times, Sarah was a founding member of the public radio project StoryCorps. She can be found on Twitter @sarahk11 and online at www.skramer.me