How "Swann Street" Could Have Been Handled Online
Readers are still reacting – most negatively – to The Post’s decision to force readers to go online if they wanted to read last week’s “Murder on Swann Street” two-part narrative. As noted in my Sunday column and several blog posts, it was heavily promoted in the newspaper but not a word of the narrative appeared there. The few who have told me they were happy to read it only on the Web felt, nonetheless, that The Post didn’t take full advantage of the storytelling techniques available in digital media.
That view was echoed by Craig Stoltz, a former Post health editor-turned-Web consultant who writes a blog that often deals with digital journalism issues. In an item he filed Monday, Stoltz hailed Post staff writer Paul Duggan’s narrative on the 2006 murder of young attorney Robert Wone as a “masterful piece of reporting and storytelling” that is a “work of significant public service.”
But he also faulted The Post’s digital presentation of “Swann Street,” calling it “an amateurish stumble (and) an obvious mismatch of medium and message.”
Its length was a major problem, Stoltz wrote, because he believes readers are reluctant to click through seemingly endless screens of text online. The “Swann Street” text was more than 6,600 words. His blog said:
“People read 25 percent slower online than on paper and can rarely sustain even that slowed pace through multiple screens. [By my math, it would take at least 45 minutes in front of the computer to read just the text of the story.] Online users also behave differently. They don’t read long stories from point to point,...They restlessly look for things to click (and) get distracted by ads.”
He felt some of the online multimedia offerings were terrific, such as the riveting 911 call reporting Wone’s murder and a copy of the police arrest affidavit. But he felt others, such as a timeline and a graphic with details of the murder scene, were missed opportunities. For instance, he said the graphic would have fit well in a newspaper, but was “nearly impossible to find” online.
Here are some things Stoltz said should have been done with the online version of “Swann Street”:
· “Rather than a dead graphic buried in the package, I’d make an interactive version the centerpiece: An interactive timeline presenting, the competing interpretations of the murder. You’d be able to compare the alternative scenarios, examining for plausibility and holes, etc. You’d also see which facts are undisputed.
· “Each item on (the) timeline would be linked to an asset when possible. For instance, that fascinating affidavit should have been broken up into chunks for this use, with different versions of the story ‘told’ with this information at appropriate moments in timeline. Different witnesses’ versions of identical moments could be stacked, their points of divergence visually highlighted.
· “That chilling 7-minute 911 call would be linked on the timeline at the moment it occurred. With a transcript as well, since [usability tests show] clicking on audio assets is a fairly rare Web user behavior. That transcript would be annotated by Duggan.
· “Then I’d re-sort those assets using a ‘geographic’ navigation – the interior of the house and its location on the street, with pop-ups of what happened where under each scenario. Again, this is presented in the current package, but dead and buried.
· “I’d have Duggan annotating the timelines with audio/transcripts/written comments at various points – refereeing, adding subtleties and insights the raw facts and assets could not provide and that only someone in command of the story journalistically could provide. Add snippets, in text and occasionally in audio, of his interviews.”
Without saying so explicitly, Stoltz’s blog makes an important point: It’s very difficult to craft a mammoth package such as “Swann Street” for the newspaper and then try to adapt it to the Web. He said a decision should be made at the outset on whether it will run only online.
When decisions are made late in the game to adapt packages for online, he told me today, it inevitably suggests editors simply view the Web as a “newshole dumping ground where we can just put stuff that doesn’t fit in the paper.”
If a major project like “Swann Street” is headed for the Web, he said, a “sophisticated digital journalist” should be assigned to take the lead at the outset and serve as a “producer-editor” in overseeing the writing and online presentation.
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