Earlier this month, I joined 15 professionals digital designers as a student helper on the Society of News Design’s Best of Digital Design awards. It was my second time helping and I took away a few great lessons on the development of online news from the judges’ deliberations.
The biggest lesson was that while many of the winning entries featured large data set analysis, motion graphics, and some new and intimidating technology, the key to a project’s success was often the thought put in to it.
Yes, we can all look at big papers like The New York Times and be intimidated by the time and resources dedicated to production (ahem, Snowfall), but what I learned at SND was that all news organizations can create great digital experiences. The key is to focus on storytelling.
Technology is intrinsically neutral — it’s the manner in which it is deployed that makes for great journalism. One of the silver medial pieces, Signing Science from The New York Times, used simple annotated videos and hover-play interaction to give readers a strong sense of what people with hearing impairments who want to work in the sciences are up against. The lesson here is that the technical treatment of the subject wasn’t all that special, but the design of the experience and thought put in to the subject that warranted special accolade, I think.
The Indianapolis Star's coverage of the Southern Indiana tornado — 49 miles, 49 minutes — also received a silver medal… more evidence that limited resources do not inhibit quality storytelling. IndyStar presented the project in a three-part video series of personal stories that gives readers an intimate connection. Again, the story wasn’t technically difficult, but it provided for a great narrative.
Another common factor among winning pieces was user participation that allowed readers to reflect on stories and make their own connections. In an age when many stories are written with an eye toward the web, it is inspiring to see new ways of incorporating traditional narrative with multimedia.
The Boston Globe’s 68 blocks: Life, Death, Hope documents Boston’s Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood. The presentation provided narrative and interactive experiences that complemented each other and an instagram interface for a photo-audio selection that helped further engage users.
Technology gives anyone with the talent to do great work. We might be intimidated by the players that win big awards, but what I learned at the SND awards is that technology can be a great equalizer among news organizations. Rather than thinking that it is impossible to compete, smaller corporations like The Denver Post, The Dallas News and The Chronicle of Higher Education are now pushing stories that show deliberate technological consideration in readers’ online experience. And even though these changes are small and subtle, and sometimes not perfect, they are pushing the industry to constantly challenge itself.