When it comes to narrative multimedia, how can we reimagine storytelling from the ground up? What if templates for new models were right in front of us? In a recent post on his blog, University of Southern California professor Henry Jenkins addressed the topic of “He-Man and the Masters of Transmedia.” (Hat tip to Nieman Lab director Josh Benton for sending us the link.)

In his post, Jenkins writes about TV shows his son grew up watching, shows like He-Man, which had cross-marketed action dolls and accessories:

And I began to ponder why these toys had been such a memorable part of his childhood and what it meant that the generation of young men and women who were, in many cases, controlling the production of transmedia entertainment had come of age playing with this particular media franchise. In some ways, contemporary transmedia is being produced by kids who grew up playing with He-Man to be consumed by kids who grew up playing Pokemon.

While he acknowledges the commercial interests inherent in using shows to market tie-ins, Jenkins sees a more complex narrative lesson at work:

Whether they fully recognized it or not, when media producers sold these toys to our children, they also told them things about the nature of the story – the story you saw on the screen was not complete and self contained; these characters had a life beyond the stories we’ve been sold and told, and what happens next is literally and figuratively in the hands of the consumer. These toys were in effect an authoring system which encouraged young people to make up their own stories about these characters much as the folk in other time periods might make up stories about Robin Hood or Pecos Bill.

It’s an interesting concept for journalists, which some storytellers have begun working on—a kind of episodic, open-ended narrative made of individual stories that tie back into the issue at hand while providing outlets for viewers to engage on their own terms. The idea poses questions about how much in the way of resources and energy to devote to new narrative elements that at present can be less stable or more rudimentary than classic models of storytelling.

Jenkins was in South America this week, but we emailed back and forth on what He-man might mean for journalism. I mentioned that narrative journalists and documentary filmmakers are, for the most part, used to trying to capture stories in one clean arc, to make sense of events for readers. But Jenkins suggested that stand-alone, traditional stories have often been less than ideal for capturing shifts in gradually-evolving stories—such as race, gender or the environment. In contrast, Jenkins noted that “crime stories are often over-covered because they fit this single story structure so perfectly.”

Further addressing the relevance of He-Man for journalists, Jenkins wrote:

“That doesn’t mean we need to be turning Katie Couric and Sarah Palin into action figures. That would be too literal a read of what I am saying. Rather, the presentation of news needs to open up a space for the active participation of its consumers. We should not be passively consuming what is put in front of us. This can, of course, take many forms, from the traditional letters to editor or forum to projects which tap the collective intelligence of readers to solve problems, from news gaming and immersive journalism to partnerships with so-called “citizen journalists.” This is not a shift from journalism’s traditional mission—it is a realization of that mission in a world which expects more opportunities for engagement and participation.”

“So, can we imagine new structures for news which are serialized and show the interconnections between these various parts? Can we imagine new structures which are multimedia, allowing for television, print, radio, and digital journalism to each exploit the properties of their medium to offer an intergrated perspective on a particular issue? It seems to me that we should be experimenting with this as much because it solves certain issues in journalism as because it reflects the structures of experience favored by a generation growing up with transmedia entertainment.”

“In the case of entertainment, the question is how might gifted storytellers deepen our experiences by creating narratives that meaningfully extend across media platforms. In the case of journalism, the question may be, how might we cover news better if we can draw on the affordances of a range of different media in a more coordinated fashion—the immediacy of broadcasting, the reflectiveness of print, and the data base or interactive structures we associate with digital. The multimedia capacity of the IPad which allows for these different media forms to be brought together within a single app only makes the experimentation with transmedia news that much more urgent.”

Noting the digital experiments of the Annenberg School of Journalism site Neon Tommy, Jenkins also mentioned Nonny De La Peña’s work on immersive journalism, “journalism involving virtual worlds and simulations.” (See De La Pena’s MacArthur grant-funded project, “Gone Gitmo” on the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay.) I’d add Wired’s use of charticles and a game to explore the micro and macro issues of Somali piracy as another interesting project. Let us know if you see other examples of using traditional media elements in conjunction with truly interactive efforts.

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