Thou Shalt Not Use Multimedia in Vain

This week, PBS MediaShift's Mark Glaser laid out his ten commandments for local newspapers that want to survive in the digital age. Sixth on his list of ten tweets was "smart multimedia." "Don't do it just to do it," Glaser says. "Use the right medium to tell the right story." But what does "smart multimedia" look like, exactly? (If I had to guess, probably a lot like this.)

Most reporters today have been told in newsrooms and in journalism schools that they need to incorporate audio and video into their storytelling. And with the help of graphic and web designers they can put together some really amazing stuff. But reaching the "smart multimedia" point can be tough, especially since the line between too little multimedia and multimedia overkill is so subjective. 

Craig Stoltz, of Web 2.0h . . . Really?, called out The Washington Post this week for the weak presentation of its two-part, online-only story on the unsolved killing of a D.C.-area lawyer. Stoltz calls the package "an amateurish stumble, an obvious mismatch of medium and message, a squandering of scarce newsroom resources that delivers very little benefit to the community and creates zero business value." Zing! The problem with the Post story is simple -- it leads with too much text and buries some really great multimedia features (the 911 call and a graphic detailing the scene of the crime are hiding out in a generic sidebar). As Stoltz points out, the story is more than 8,000 words of uninterrupted text. And even though it's a fascinating read, I can't help but think that rearranging the presentation of the story could have drawn in many more readers who were too overwhelmed to read the whole thing.

Stoltz suggests using an interactive version of the graphic as the centerpiece, which would link to relevant chunks of the story. This would have meant more work for the Post newsroom, but even simply breaking up some of the main story text with graphics and photos would have made the story more manageable for online readers. (This is something the Post pulled off in each chapter of its Chandra Levy series last summer, with photos and video interviews interspersed throughout the text.) The Post's treatment of the story was especially surprising since it was published exclusively online -- definitely a failure in matching the message to the medium.

But it's just as bad when newspapers use multimedia for no good reason. I usually love the St. Petersburg Times' multimedia projects, but one of their standing features was the first thing that came to mind when I read Glaser's tweet about using multimedia "just to do it." It's called Mug Shots, a page where you can "meet" an ever-changing number of people who were booked in the area over the past twenty-four hours. By "meet" they mean "look at these people's mug shots and find out what crime they are suspected of committing" -- it's a weird word choice, to say the least.

I get the impression that the Times intends for Mug Shots to be a spruced-up version of the police blotters that appear in most local dailies. But Mug Shots isn't useful in the same way most blotters are. When done properly, newspaper blotter entries are classified into city zones -- this way, readers can skip to their zone to see what crimes have been going on in their neighborhoods. Mug Shots lets you browse by zip code, which is nice, but you have to click on each person's photo to find out what people are being arrested for. It's a horribly inconvenient way to present the information that readers probably care about the most. You can't browse by crime, either -- but for some reason you can browse by height, weight, and eye color. Perhaps using the Google Maps API to display the locations and crimes would have served readers better.      

But I think my biggest problem with Mug Shots is the mug shots themselves. This isn't a view shared by most journalists, but I think newspapers should publish mug shots online or in print only when the suspect is at large. Otherwise, I don't really see how publishing pictures of people who might or might not have committed a crime serves any public interest (unless, of course, it's Nick Nolte). It seems like the Times just got too excited about its bag of multimedia tricks to stop and think whether it was presenting useful information in a useful way. 

(Courtney French is a rising second-year law student at Georgetown University and a CMLP legal intern.) 

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