We talked last week by phone with USA Today interactives director Joshua Hatch about “Five Years Later: Hurricane Katrina,” the paper’s attempt to document the recovery and continuing struggles of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. With a prologue and three chapters (Effects, Rebuilding and Unsettled), the project includes maps, interactive visuals, video and bare-bones text. In these excerpts from our talk, Hatch discusses pushing the envelope for visual storytelling, the scope of the effort and how it doubled as an experiment in presentation on the iPad.

What was the original idea for this project?

Everyone said we wouldn’t forget New Orleans, and we’d make sure the city comes back – the whole Gulf Coast, actually. It’s been five years, and we wanted to see where things stand now. How much progress has been made?

And the other part was to see what we could do to advance online storytelling techniques.

Was there a give and take between what you thought the story would be and what people actually found on the ground? Did anything change as a result?

Not that much other than that when we conceived of the project, the oil spill hadn’t happened. That was kind of a challenge, because you didn’t really know how big it was going to be and how long it was going to go on. So, while we’re trying to put this together, we’re trying to decide: How much of the oil spill do we need to incorporate into this? Is that its own project? Do we stop doing this and focus on that? Because it was ongoing, you never knew how it was going to play out. So we ended up taking the approach, well, how does it compare to Katrina? We got a sense that in some ways Katrina was much, much worse, and in other ways, the oil spill was much, much worse.

But because we have a reporter based in New Orleans, we had a pretty good sense of what we would find. USA Today has been doing a lot of stories following Katrina, so it wasn’t as if we ignored it for five years and then went back with no idea what to expect. We had a pretty good idea of what was going on, but we wanted to try to aggregate all that and then present it in a visual and digital way.

As far as the idea of doing something new in online storytelling, traditionally, in a print story, you’ve got an arc where words carry the reader through. Can you talk about the ways you were imagining this as a story without a lot of text?

You have a lot of options available. I admit to being a little more traditional; I kind of like a narrative arc and someone constructing a story. Although the digital experience can be very nonlinear, I’m somewhat partial to the linear path. So we tried to put it together in a way that you could flip through it as kind of a magazine in a linear way, but you could also dive into any part that you wanted to. We were working to get the best of both worlds.

Those four categories you use don’t seem to just be chronological. They move you through the components of a story.

We call them chapters. We almost called them chapters right in the package, but we ran out of space. In an early brainstorming session we had, we said, “What are all the different components or issues that are happening there?” Part of it was the cultural change; part of it was the idea of rebuilding lives, levees and homes.

We wanted to have something in there to remind people just what it was like at the start. That was what we call the prologue – just to reset the tear to say, “It’s been five years. You might have forgotten how devastating it was.” To reset the clock on that, and then to divvy it up into these primary groups.

We looked at a lot of different parts of it, and what we settled on were chapters or categories. They’re a little bit chronological and they’re also grouped together. There are these lasting effects; the idea of what it’s done to the demographics, what it’s done in terms of nature taking over. Lasting effects, and then this idea of what’s being done on the rebuilding side to make it safe to bring people back.

Then the fourth part is looking forward. “OK, so this is where we’re at. What are we going to see moving ahead?” Which is mostly where the oil spill comes in, particularly in one video: effects on the fishing industry, the idea of how New Orleans is rebounding culturally, politically, socially. So that was kind of how we thought about it, but it started with listing all the different issues that we thought fell into this, and grouping those issues together in a meaningful way that led from one to the next.

Was this done in conjunction with anything on the print side?

A little bit. Actually, I think they probably still will do their anniversary stories, but mostly this is an instance when the Web actually led the way. We really thought that we could do some innovative and interesting and meaningful “of the Web” kind of work.

It’s turning what you might call the traditional model on its head a little bit, but they were great. They’ve done graphics based on what we’ve done online, and stories. The day we launched, the travel writer for the cruise blog had a post about cruises coming back to New Orleans. He linked to the package. There’s a lot of cross-promotional work, which is really a tribute to the efforts that have been made by people who have an eagle eye on these things. They look out for those opportunities and try to make the connections. We’re just so focused on getting the work done and getting the project finished, to have other people who can say, “Hey, they’re doing that, and folks over here are doing this. Those are related, so let’s make sure that gets together,” is really helpful.

There are a number of contradictions and viewpoints bundled into the project: people feel safer but not safe, the city is inspired and on the move but residents are still struggling, the Saints won the Super Bowl but then the oil spill hit. To what degree did you try to resolve that or to present the pieces?

I would just say we let the stories be told. I’m not going to volunteer myself, but I think somebody could find issues with the package, and maybe that’s one of them. But mostly we tried to group together content and stories that we think as a whole give you an idea of what’s happening. It’s a complex situation. There’s not an easy answer to any of it. There are these contradictions. You have people moving back but still angry at the Corps. You have the Corps spending so much money, and people saying it’s not enough. There is inherent contradiction in what’s happening down there. I think maybe it was beyond the scope of this package to resolve all that, but I think we do a good job of explaining what’s happening.

Can you talk a little about the lagniappe?

That was the idea of one of our visual journalists who was down there. They had these great panoramas of the cemetery and Bourbon Street. They’re fun to look at, and people, when I showed it to them before we launched, said, “Wow that’s great. They’re really beautiful.” But they didn’t really fit anywhere.

So he came back and said, “We ought to call this ‘lagniappe.’ ” It’s a little something extra you have on the menus down there.

Is there anything else about the project we should know that we might not?

The one thing I would mention is that although it works across all platforms and so on, one of the things we wanted to do was to make something that took advantage of the unique aspects of the iPad. So the whole thing is built to work on an iPad. It fits perfectly, and although there’s some Flash in the Desktop, that little bit of Flash is replaced with iPad-compatible technology. You can use your finger to do the panoramas and the then-nows and so on. The people who have experienced that absolutely love it. That’s really exciting for us to try and experiment and do new things, and to take these cool new devices and toys and give people new ways of interacting. Our thought was that it is like a microsite or a digital magazine that people could go through, and that’s been a lot of fun and is an amazing job by the people here to make that work.

Still, one of the things was that we tried not to do technology or neat things for the sake of doing them. Which is a little what the lagniappe is, but really everything in there we tried to make with the idea that this is the best way to tell this part of the story. And so we have the opening quote, the idea of epigraphs setting the stage and introducing the elements. I think that’s an effective use of text: getting a little intro and then you can just engage. I think we tried to do it so that it’s not just technology for technology’s sake but with a narrative purpose.

The other thing is the metrics. There are about 68 different elements in the package. So far (as of Friday, Aug. 20) we’ve had about 100,000 visitors to the package, and they see about 10 pages per visit and spend on average five or six minutes on there. And the way we’ve promoted it is that we drop people in at different points. What we’re finding is that people are coming in, looking at a whole chapter, staying for a while, and then coming back. It’s not a 30,000-word article that they have to read all at once. They can digest a piece of it, go back to work, then come back later and digest the next piece. I think that’s a cool way of making it work as well.

[For more, read our commentary on “Five Years Later: Hurricane Katrina.”]

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