Piecemeal Content Creation

Not all multimedia stories come into beings as a single, unified package. Some come together bit by bit, one piece at a time. Such narratives are necessarily non-linear to some extent because the ending hasn’t even happened when the story begins and interesting bits of content that come up in the middle don’t necessarily fit neatly into a larger narrative.

This kind of content creation has a number of advantages. One, it allows the user to explore a topic in relative real time, as it is actually happening on the ground. Should a situation be ongoing, a war or a disaster for example, it might make sense to do this.

Consider the Globe and Mail story Project Jacmel, which brings together a number of stories about the rebuilding of a city in Haiti after the earthquake there. The story follows seven subjects over time, from the immediate aftermath of the disaster, through the rebuild, to the future. Updates were posted fairly regularly to give readers a chance to find out what was happening to the characters they had been introduced to. There were even individual RSS feeds for each subject to keep users in the loop. A Project Jacmel blog provided even more up-to-date information, although in smaller bites. A year after the earthquake, the Globe published more content taking a closer look at Haiti one year on, tying together some of the threads from the previous coverage. By publishing content in this way, the Globe gave the reader a sense of immediacy and connection that wouldn’t have been the same had they put together Project Jacmel together as a single package a year after the earthquake. The timeframe helped the storytelling. And because it was ongoing, it gave users a chance to become involved. Included in Project Jacmel were articles about how to help the people of Haiti.

Similarly, the New York Times story A Year At War looks at the U.S. led war in Afghanistan through a single battalion. It begins with deployment and ends with the battalion coming home. Along the way, the user is introduced to numerous soldiers through interviews, sees real life combat, and gets some perspective on some of the challenges facing soldiers in Afghanistan. It would have been a lot of content to take in had it been delivered all at once. But doled out in pieces, A Year At War leaves room for small details (such as seven short videos that cover smaller topics like the death of a soldier and the war dogs the battalion adopted and nineteen even shorter video “moments” that offer brief glimpses into life in Afghanistan). Comparatively, Ian Fisher: American Solider, which covers similar ground although in a different war, and was published in three parts over three consecutive days, is much more focused, covering the experiences of a single soldier. Ian Fisher: American Solider delves much deeper into that one story than A Year At War does for any single solider, but A Year At War manages to wider scope that the other can only hint at.

A second advantage of piecemeal content creation is that it fits well with the newspaper publishing schedule. Newspapers are one of the main sources of multimedia stories. They mostly publish smaller articles daily, which, taken together, add up to coverage of a given topic. When an online shell is created to collect these stories together, this coverage can be better navigated by the user and the various narrative threads can be more easily pulled together. This also makes it easier to repurpose content originally created for the newspaper. Many of the articles that make up Project Jacmel were also published in the print version of the paper.

A third advantage is that it allows for more user-generated content. When a site is live and constantly growing, it makes it easier to invite the user to submit additional content instead of just commenting on what has already been made. A Year At War includes a section of content submitted by the soldiers themselves. Another piecemeal site about war, Assignment Afghanistan, has a similar section. And other sites like Test Tube and Love Letters To The Future are almost entirely based on user-generated content. If they didn’t grow over time, there wouldn’t be much of a point to them. Why submit an activity to Test Tube if not to compare your answer to what other people have said?

The trick with piecemeal content creation is to maintain easy navigation, even as new content is being added regularly. Returning users need to find it easy to view new content without having to sift through things they have already seen. And ideally some form of overall narrative needs to be imposed, something that can be difficult when the content has only a topic in common. Some stories do this better than others. Because it has its own site A Year At War is easier to navigate than Project Jacmel, which is spread around the Globe website. But Project Jacmel because it organizes stories according to subject and time, does a better job of connecting topics than Assignment Afghanistan, which makes little attempt to connect different stories together beyond their common topic.