This weekend, The Wichita Eagle started an interesting storytelling experiment. Well, actually the experiment started a few weeks ago, when they posted a trailer for an upcoming narrative project on Book trailers (like this one, for a work of fiction) are getting more and more popular, and last year, the Los Angeles Times ran a trailer for a massive retrospective gangsters-and-cops narrative. But earlier this month, the Eagle upped the ante by sending out a note with a link to a second trailer.

kapaunThe project, “The Miracle of Father Kapaun,” centers on a U.S. Army chaplain ordained in Wichita and reported to have performed extraordinary actions on the battlefield in Korea. More recently, a local man made a startling recovery after organized prayers were held asking for Kapaun’s intercession, which drew the Vatican to investigate.

It’s a perfect narrative storm, an inspirational religious story assembled for the holiday season, with two fresh news hooks: the possibility of sainthood for Kapaun and the Army decision over whether or not to posthumously award him the Medal of Honor. The paper had gotten strong response from a Kapaun article earlier in the year, which gave them a hint that a bigger project would interest readers.

Still, that kind of narrative space is unusual at a mid-size newspaper these days. Reporter Roy Wenzl, who wrote the print portion of the Kapaun project, praises the paper’s leadership. “When we find good stories, they try to give us the opportunity to work on them,” he says. “They’re gutsy, daring people.”

The 8-part print serial runs more than 17,000 words in all. The first parts of the serial are currently online with embedded video clips. That might have been more than enough for most papers the size of the Eagle, which Wenzl says now has less than half the staff it had when he arrived over a decade ago. But Eagle photojournalist Travis Heying has also put together a 45-minute DVD. Local PBS station KPTS will air the documentary in December, and the paper is offering copies for sale online now.

Wenzl and Heying made a conscious decision not only to give Kapaun full narrative treatment but take a step back and tell as big a story as possible, with the goal of being the narrative of record in the likely event that Kapaun receives the medal of honor, and the less certain possibility of his ordination as a saint further down the road.

Heying was clear about covering different ground with the video. The print serial and the video “really are two different stories,” he says. “Roy’s story focuses on the events in Korea—and that’s the dramatic stuff. What I wanted to do with the video was to tell the more complete story about his life. Why do we care about this now? Where did Kapaun come from? And then what did he do that made people in Kansas pray to him today?”

We’ll have to see the whole project to get a sense of whether the material stands up under the weight of 17,000 words. There are compelling moments in the first installments—primarily battle reconstructions recounting the account of a former POW saved by Kapaun. And the serial has begun to gently examine the question of what exactly is a miracle—I hope Wenzl follows that thread through the rest of his story.

I’m intrigued by the idea of a newspaper doing a hyperlocal multimedia narrative for its own readers with an eye on exporting it to specific communities elsewhere. Religion and military service are two slots for this kind of storytelling, but I could see this concept working for a lot of topics. Larger newspapers have already taken a similar approach to special sports event and inauguration editions. It may be a way to keep doing classic print narratives while simultaneously taking advantage of other storytelling forms on television or online.

We’ll check back in 2010 to see how it all plays out, but in the meantime, Wenzl reports that video pre-orders have covered costs for four trips across a dozen states to talk to people for the project.

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