Can social media serve as source material for compelling news narratives? A number of innovative tools and programs have been developed that have interesting à la carte uses or make for beautiful visuals, but it is possible for any of them to carry the weight of a news story as it unfolds?
Over the weekend, TBD made a good bid for answering that question “yes” when it comes to Storify, a platform featured in September by Megan Garber over at Nieman Lab. As Garber notes, Storify was founded by former AP reporter (and Hacks/Hackers founder) Burt Herman, along with developer Xavier Damman.
Storify allows users to drag and drop items from various social media sites, then add material, images or links to the mix. On Friday, TBD Social Media Producer Mandy Jenkins used it to narrate conflicting accounts of events outside a DC nightclub that had resulted in a death early that morning. I saw Jay Rosen’s Tweet about the piece over the weekend and called Jenkins this morning to talk about her approach. Here’s what she had to say about choosing Storify:
I like playing with new toys on the Internet, but we hadn’t found the right story where we thought Storify would really work. After working on the DC9 story all day – I run our Twitter accounts, but our whole staff was contributing to that all day long — we saw how it had changed and how we really needed to make sense of that, not just for our readers, but for us. Getting everything out there in timeline order, between all the other media outlets, what we were doing and what our readers were doing and how the story had changed throughout the day – I’d originally just billed it as an experiment, but then we realized it looked pretty nice, and we thought we’d publish it.
We were getting so much feedback all day long: “All we’re getting are these tweets from all these different sources that are not really making a lot of sense.” The story kept changing, and I really wanted to reflect that element of it, because the local Twittersphere was in a state of panic/confusion all day.
As the Tweets and images in the TBD story unfold chronologically, it’s easy to follow all the twists and turns of events—the surprises that change the story. The scattershot perspectives lead to a lot of context and multiple views being presented, in a kind of Rashomon style but with a a real sense of forward motion as new information clears up mistaken impressions or reporting. The story becomes more and more complex, but in distinct steps, with links on many of the tweets for readers to get more details. It really is worth a visit to check out the full DC9 piece—the story captures the confusion nicely while letting revelations unfold across time.
I mentioned to Jenkins how dramatic those plot twists felt, and she noted that she intentionally tried to capture the feeling of chasing the story that day:
A lot of people were out of work for the day, but they were following this. That’s what they were seeing, too. They weren’t necessarily able to go and read every update we had on the site. I know from our perspective and what some of the other media outlets were doing was trying to get the latest info we had out there: “Okay, this is the latest twist, and if you want to see how it’s all developing, you can read the full story. But this is the latest information.” And a lot of people were just piecing things together that way. It made for a lot of confusion if you were only following one piece or another. So that was the whole idea: to show what that experience was really like, because it was nuts.
While it can clearly be useful to create a short-term tick-tock, as TBD has done, I can imagine how Storify might be also be expanded to recreate a longer series of events. Storify might also be helpful for stories that take the long view, traditional narratives done after the fact when more of the story is known. As for whether or not she thinks it’s a new approach to storytelling, Jenkins says,
I think it really can be a new way of doing this. This was something we could never really do in a basic textual narrative that we usually would write, just because we could have a quote here and a quote there, but we’d still have work in everything else to make it make sense, whereas it’s a lot easier to do when you don’t have to include all these outside elements. But when you’re bringing in all these other voices, this is a really great way to incorporate that and have it not be confusing, and to have it look really nice. And it’s giving everyone exact credit. You’re not mixing up quotes. Readers aren’t saying, “Well, who’s that guy again?” This is their tweet, this is their picture, this is their comment. This is the news as it happened.I hope we can use it again more in the future. I really think it’s got a lot of potential.
I think that it was hard to pick, at least out of this particular storyline, the best thing, because I really wanted to put everything in there. Much like writing a story the old-fashioned way, if you want to call it that – this quote was great, or this little detail, but in order to make the bigger picture make sense, you have to prune stuff away. That’s what’s kind of funny. It takes the same exact reporting and curating and story-crafting experience; it’s just a totally different way of doing it. You’re not writing it all yourself, you’re just piecing together a giant puzzle.
For some very different examples of Storify in action, check out NYU Studio 20′s East Village restaurant project, Tim Carmody’s quest for special Twitter followers, and The Washington Post’s Twitter roundup on the resignation of DC Public School Chancellor Michelle Rhee.