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A Multimedia Approach to Human Interest Storytelling

A Multimedia Approach to Human Interest Storytelling

Picture of Angilee Shah

In 2003, Oakland, California, was one of the most dangerous cities in America. The Oakland Tribune ran a static map with thumbnail photos of victims overlayed on a map of the city. Sean Connelley, journalist and photographer, visited victims' families, but even for him, the real people involved were becoming a blur.

The murder map sells papers, but is not exactly a humanizing endeavor. Connelley and Katy Newton, a video journalist, developed a new way to tell these kinds of tough stories. They added interactivity to the Oakland Tribune's reportage in a major multimedia project launched in 2006. When you click on "Not Just a Number", you watch the site load maps (it says"Loading Maps 0/128"), and then are immersed in an interactive world of understanding about a city that was quickly becoming a warzone.

Interviewing victims in a dangerous neighborhood required patience. Once the pair was able to earn the trust of some people, victims told their friends and the neighborhoods began opening up. By the time the project was ready to launch about three months later, said Newton, the pair were getting calls and being invited to community events. They had also added resources and ideas for how to get involved because they had learned what their readers really wanted from this kind of site.

"You could tell there was a lot of hatred toward the media in the area where these kinds of crimes were happening," said Connelley. "We tried to have empathy toward them."

While the interactive maps were the first feature to garner great attention, the most enduring and well-trafficked parts of the project is the Talk Back section, where community members posted comments and messages. New stories on the site were promoted in the hard copy newspaper, driving traffic consistently to the project's new content. At the time, the project overall reached the largest audience of all the online features on the site. The Oakland Tribune stopped updating information on the site in 2007, when Connelley and Newton moved to the Los Angeles Times.

The pair's most recent work includes a multimedia package at the Los Angeles Times called "Mexico Under Siege".

If you are interested in pursuing your own multimedia projects, Newton and Connelley have a few suggestions. They said not to be deterred by failures. "It's not like we had any experience in this," said Connelley. "We just taught ourselves." Newton said you can also pursue much smaller projects that are not as daunting.

They suggest using Google Maps, which will be covered in a seminar later today, and say that creating these kinds of projects has become much easier. Connelley said if he were create a project like this again, he would not base it on Flash and might have used Wordpress for some parts of the project. He would also have integrated the design better with the newspaper's existing site. "Mexico Under Siege," for example, was placed in's multimedia section and also integrated into news articles. Tell designers what the overarching themes (such as "humanize victims" or "it's a war") and who your target audience is. This will help them have goals and choose appropriate technology.

Also, ask for help from people with websites and innovations that you like. "There is a very strong collaborative culture on the web," said Newton. "People will answer your questions and they will help you."

"Projects like this shouldn't be done all the time," said Connelley. Newton added, "It should be a topic that really touches your community."

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