interactive journalistic stories
Balancing authorial, user, and technological agency
Ten years after the publication of the much-acclaimed Snow Fall: The Avalanche of Tunnel Creek (The New York Times, 2012), designing journalistic stories for interactivity and deeper audience engagement is an essential practice in journalism. The first experiments with interaction date from the 1990s, but the genre didn't take off until 2012 because it's a complicated journalistic form. For example, the production of interactive journalistic stories requires a considerable investment – in terms of money and time – from the news media. It is not only an in-depth and compelling journalistic story that requires in-depth research, as is the case with feature journalism and narrative journalism. The story is also presented in a multimedia and interactive way. The new skills needed to make such stories, such as design, interaction design, and programming, were – certainly at that time – not readily available in every newsroom. In addition to these challenges, it was also thought that in-depth journalism online would not come into its own because people would prefer to read short and fast news on a screen.
Nothing could be further from the truth because the great success of Snow Fall, which even won a Pulitzer Prize (one of the most prestigious journalistic prizes in the world), has made it clear that there is also room for in-depth journalism online. From affluent national and international news organisations such as the Volkskrant or The New York Times to regional and local titles such as Dagblad van het Noorden and Vers Beton, all kinds of newsrooms regularly produce longer interactive forms of journalism. News organisations are still creating their own interactive in-depth stories despite the challenges. News organisations explored interactive storytelling in the 2010s by creating as many interactive stories as possible. During that time, many different interactive forms emerged thanks to experimentation. Meanwhile, ten years later, the experimental phase is over. It has become customary to provide interactive elements deliberately as part of journalistic stories or that journalists purposely omit this because it adds nothing to the story.
In my research, I focus on these interactive journalistic stories. I am especially curious about the consequences of interactivity for the story, the production process and the user experience. It's important to investigate this because how creators incorporate interactivity into journalistic stories says something about how they envision the relationship with the public. Later innovative developments, such as news games and immersive journalism, can be traced back to earlier experiments in innovative and interactive narrative forms.
In this summary, I first place my research in the context of developments in journalism. In recent decades, journalistic practices have paid increasing attention to the public, which has repercussions on revenue models and the type of stories journalists create. I then give an overview of the four studies I did during my PhD. I briefly discuss the approach, method and results of each study.
The public becomes more important
To properly interpret the role of interactivity in journalistic practice, it is necessary to place this journalistic form in a broader context. In-depth online journalism was initially portrayed in the academic literature as a response from quality journalism to the increasingly rapid news cycle. But there's more to it. The audience plays an increasingly important role in journalism.
The rise and definitive breakthrough of the internet in the 1990s and 2000s, was particularly decisive for the greater role of the audience. The position of the news media in the advertising market deteriorated during this period, which prompted the news media to look for new revenue models. Advertisers preferred online ads to more expensive print. News media became more and more dependent on Google, and the losses could hardly be compensated. When advertising revenues failed, new media turned to their audiences – who initially paid little or did not pay at all for online news. Snow Fall is a case in point – the idea originated not with the editors but with the advertising department looking for a way to increase The New York Times' online subscriptions. The success of Snow Fall played a crucial role in the growing awareness among media that news users may be willing to pay for informative stories and a unique experience.
The increased attention for the public has, therefore, impacted the revenue models of news media and the type of online stories that journalists produce. After Snow Fall, the audience members were no longer seen as passive recipients of the story but as users who can experience the story, choose what information is part of the story, and sometimes even influence how the story continues.
My research shows that the goal of interactive journalism is to create a sense of involvement in users (audience engagement), which is also believed to increase the willingness to pay. Makers try to achieve this by adding interactive elements – for example, a map of the Netherlands where users can enter their zip code, as is the case with The Industry by VPRO and Submarine Channel, or an interactive data visualisation where users can adjust variables such as with Can birth control solve the global food problem? of the Volkskrant.
Furthermore, my research shows that interactive stories appeal to users' emotions in different ways. For example, other research into the role of interactivity in games shows that interaction can increase the sense of involvement because users have more agency in the story. In addition, the makers also use many literary and cinematographic narrative techniques to achieve this. For instance, Uit het Moeras, produced by Dagblad van het Noorden and BloeiMedia, uses narrative journalistic techniques that allow users to experience what it is like to live in poverty. In interactive journalistic stories, we repeatedly see a combination of interaction and the appeal of emotions through narrative techniques to increase the users’ sense of involvement.
Although these developments have received considerable attention in the academic literature, the role of interactivity remains underexposed. That is why I wanted to focus my research on better interpreting interactivity in journalism. My research contributes to the scientific discussion about in-depth interactive journalistic stories, known as digital longforms and interactive documentaries. The genre, which is researched within the field of journalism as well as documentary film studies, has various theories. For my research, I developed an approach to bridge the gap between these two fields.
Because the journalistic practice of interactive storytelling is interdisciplinary, I have developed an approach that does justice to the different disciplines, using theories and methods from various fields, including narratology, media studies, game studies, science and technology studies and journalism studies.
Here is the thing: makers of online journalistic stories combine different media forms, such as text, video, and data visualisations, with interactive possibilities. The aim is to tell a compelling and interactive story, which requires skills that are traditionally not part of the professional journalistic practice, such as design, interaction design, and programming. This innate interdisciplinary nature of the production process is precisely why an interdisciplinary research approach is needed to understand online interactive stories. This approach is reflected in various ways in the four articles of my dissertation.
The first article explores the Dutch field because, so far, the research has mainly focused on the Anglo-Saxon context. It was challenging to get a good picture of Dutch interactive journalistic productions because these stories are hardly or not archived at all. That is why I have chosen to compile my collection based on the submissions of three important journalism awards (De Loep, NL Awards, and VOJN Awards). In 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, Dutch news media proved highly productive. My collection includes 155 online interactive stories in all kinds of forms. These stories are not only made by well-known national news organisations, such as de Volkskrant and NOS op 3, but also by smaller news media such as RTV Oost, Vers Beton, and Dagblad van het Noorden. This variation indicates that these interactive stories were produced across the breadth of Dutch journalism.
In the article, I analyse how multimediality, interactivity and narrativity are expressed in the productions. My research shows that both multimedia and interactive technological possibilities involve users in the story in various ways (narrativity). The narrative formats used reflect this and are fundamentally different from traditional journalistic formats. Interactive multimedia stories use well-known media forms in combination with new narrative forms for journalism, such as stories where users can choose from different storylines.
As mentioned before, interactivity is used, among other things, to create involvement and to make complex stories accessible, for example, by offering additional information and access to primary sources for in-depth and transparency. The chosen method provides only limited insight into the role of interactivity. The results show that interactivity is present but still provides little insight into the functioning of interactivity and how users are involved. At the same time, these stories almost always require activity from the user.
The limited knowledge about interactivity inspired me to develop this aspect further. After I explored the 155 online stories, I determined the final focus of the research. It became clear that interactivity as part of journalistic stories has far-reaching consequences for the story's presentation (text), the associated production process and the user experience. I wanted to do three sub-studies to address these aspects, each focusing on a different phase.
Because I wanted to get to grips with interactivity – which is quite a broad and sometimes vague concept – I designed a research approach in which a few case studies recur and are analysed from a different perspective with innovative research methods. Each research method was chosen because it makes it possible to highlight another part of the process. I decided to work with qualitative research methods, such as in-depth interviews and focus groups because they generate rich data that allowed me to analyse the dynamics between creators, users and technology.
In the second article, I develop a conceptual model to analyse interactive journalistic stories. For this, I introduce the terms story space and interactive architecture. I argue that interactive stories are fundamentally different from non-interactive stories because the presentation of the story on the user's screen depends on the activity of that same user. The story offers choices that allow each user to construct their own version of the story. I argue these choices create a story space that can be navigated through an interactive architecture – the total number of options.
In the article, I reconstruct the interactive architecture of five journalistic stories. The five stories were chosen because they vary in complexity. To fully map out the interactive possibilities, I have documented systematic walkthroughs of each production. My analysis shows how these stories shape user activity in various ways, ranging from closed interactive systems in which users have few options to choose their own path, to open systems in which users have a high degree of freedom. Open story space have more complex interactive architectures but users are not completely released from authorial control. In these complex open story spaces, makers seem to play with the tension and dynamics between open and closed interactive elements. Thereby creating story spaces with different sections in which the creator and the user alternately have control throughout the story.
It seems evident that these complex interactive journalistic stories require a different production process than more common journalistic genres. Very little is known about interdisciplinary production processes in journalism. We know even less about the production processes of stories that aim to engage users in other ways (audience engagement). The latter assumes that makers make design decisions that take the user into account. Usually, this doesn't happen; users are not involved in the production, according to my research. Instead, creators have all kinds of ideas and assumptions that, in summary, form an imagined user. Therefore, the third article focuses on the following question: how does the imaginary user come about during the production process of interactive stories?
To answer this question, I first reconstructed the production processes. I combined document analysis, in-depth interviews and focus groups with the makers. The findings of the study reveal an exciting contradiction. Makers say that they involve the user in the production process in different ways that are new for journalism, but, as it turns out, their actual activity does not reflect that. The imaginary user arises from technological possibilities (affordances) of the software used and the background of the makers. It is striking that despite the fusion of journalistic and design practices, user testing and other additional audience research methodologies are hardly used during the production processes of interactive journalistic stories. Above all, the imaginary user of interactive stories reproduces a traditional journalistic audience. In addition, makers themselves do not have a good idea of how users respond to the interactive possibilities within the story.
Since the makers do not know how the audience reacts to the interactive possibilities within the story, it is logical to draw attention to this in the research. Creators work on the assumption that interaction makes users feel more involved in the story. I analysed whether that is the case in the fourth article. I am especially curious about how interaction influences the user experience.
To get to grips with this, I use think-aloud protocols, in which users are asked to express their thoughts and feelings while interacting with an interactive story. The results show that interactivity can certainly contribute to a sense of involvement, but that involvement is mainly experienced when users can follow the story undisturbed. When users recognise themselves in the story, they feel particularly involved. Interactivity can contribute to this by allowing users to make the story more personal by entering your own zip code or year of birth. On the other hand, if the purpose of the requested interaction is unclear, interactivity distracts from the story.
Together, the articles provide a coherent picture of in-depth interactive journalism in the Netherlands. By examining interactive stories from different perspectives (the story, the creative process, and the user experience), it becomes clear how creators design and translate engagement into a story space with an interactive architecture and how news users respond to it.
The results of the four studies reveal a tension between the promise of interactivity and its actual application. While the relationship between journalists and their audiences is changing, it stems from traditional ideas about authorship and the role of the audience; journalists want to tell a story and assume that there is an audience for it. In addition, makers think they influence the user experience of journalistic stories. That will be the case to a certain extent, but makers hardly involve their users in the production process. As a result, there is a gap among the makers in the knowledge about the user experience. Other research into the use of metrics in newsrooms also shows that learning about the audience mainly comes from the journalist's own experiences, contact with journalistic sources, and easily measurable online user statistics. This was also reflected in my research.
My research partially fills this gap between journalists and their audience and clarifies that users' perspective is an underexposed aspect in both research and journalistic practice. It is unlikely that audience engagement and the increased attention for the audience from the makers is a temporary development. News media are constantly looking for a new interpretation of the relationship between journalism and the public. Yet until now, the research, including mine, has mainly been done from the makers' perspective. Professional practice and journalistic education need new directions to shape the relationship with the public.