Enhancing journalism through interactive long-form storytelling

Matt Montgomery | Web Developer, DDM | March 1, 2015

Reporters and software developers are both hard to work with — or at least that's how the popular tropes go.

At Deseret Digital Media, however, we've found success integrating newsroom reporters and software developers into the storytelling process through interactive long-form storytelling projects. Projects like "Living Lonely," "Brylee's Wings" and "Life & Liberty" that we've produced at Deseret News provide an important opportunity to bridge the gap between non-journalist developers and traditional print reporters and photographers. They weren't simply presentation layers for good reporting, but opportunities to collaborate in story structure, workflow, user-experience design, and other Web reporting essentials.

Our goal was not to simply create a nicer-looking version of a print story, but to actively engage users with a better storytelling experience. We're not the first to strive for that — outlets like The New York Times, the Guardian, National Geographic and an array of others continue to produce this sort of content. We are continually learning from those around us producing not just good reportage, but also amazing experiences. Our aims are the same as theirs: to create meaningful storytelling experiences for our readers.

As we've developed several of these over the last two years at Deseret News Digital, we've had a chance to learn firsthand how developers and traditional reporters can interact to good effect.

Commit to the cause

While strong product managers (maybe with journalism experience) can help make the process move more smoothly, it doesn't work out so well if there's not buy-in from everyone involved. Developers can't just treat working with a journalist as a tedious exercise, but as an opportunity to take a participatory role in the journalism itself. Equally, journalists can't treat developers as a simple vehicle to make their stories widely available, but as a person who knows some of the best ways to communicate on the Internet.

The product team at Deseret News Digital functions outside the newsroom and editorial hierarchy, so as a result, there are no developer-journalists working in an editorial capacity. Therefore, even as a developer at a media organization, it's sometimes easy to work without much of a view toward the people whose content for which you're working to create a platform. Getting a sense of the significance of the work being done is of the utmost importance, but it's also important to know how the work is being done.

Learn the process

Developers and product managers can create more meaningful products when everyone on the team understands the editorial process and the reasons each step is followed. It's not simply a case of a developer grabbing deliverables from a reporter — sometimes, it's a side-by-side interaction, where reporters can see their work in action, that leads to the best results. It takes the iterative process and spins it into something not just accessible to the newsroom, but integrates them as a vital part of the process. Working alongside reporters day-by-day isn't necessary or even practical, but on a project-by-project basis, it fosters collaboration in substantial and meaningful ways.

Learn to communicate both technically and non-technically

When a developer works with a reporter, the reporter probably won't care what new JavaScript library they'll be using for a project, and they probably won't know too much about how things that seem simple are sometimes the most complex. Instead, it's important to communicate the advantages third-party libraries provide and how that will affect the presentation and to explain on a high level what complexities exist.

With some attention to detail and openness to collaboration across different mediums, interactive Web reporting opens doors to broad and positive implications in the newsroom, with members of news teams and product teams benefitting equally.