Back to the future: Digital journalism with a historical twist

Digital megastories are heading back to the future with a growing trend in interactive online reports inspired by historical data. Sydney Pead reports on the most recent retrospective stories and upcoming collaborations that will explore the past.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | July 21, 2014

This year marks 100 years since World War I and instead of formerly familiar one dimentional depictions, the Wall Street Journal has taken the anniversary to new digital heights with a multi-media patchwork of historical snapshots that show 100 legacies of the Great War that continue to have an impact today.

“WWI has been written about a thousand times over and (it) is already receding from living history. For the centenary, we wanted to put a different spin on our coverage…” says WSJ graphics editor, Elliot Bentley.

“We went with what could be considered a very complex listicle, where the reader can choose to read as much or as little as they like. Each item can stand alone… but are even stronger as a unit. You could just watch the fun video on ‘Cake In Japan’ (one of the more novel legacies from WWI), or you could read all 44,000 words of it – it’s your choice,” he told the World Editors Forum.

In a conventional long form text-based article, content relegated to the bottom of the piece would be largely unseen. But immersive journalism completely changes the consumer experience of complex story-telling. “In today’s ‘digital first’ world, we can now instead lead with a big interactive incorporating many graphics and articles as a single, seamless package. It helps that it’s easier than ever to put together these immersive web-based experiences using JavaScript and HTML5m,” Bentley said.

For WSJ digital editor, John Crowley, the nature of history, its innumerable statistics and information makes it the perfect subject for interactive journalism mega projects.

“You have this wealth of material to work with…for WWI you had the birth of newsreel, footage from the front and archival footage…you’ve got multi-media, moving beyond words and pictures…you have [footage of] the actual people who’ve been affected…I think that’s what makes it so much more alive,” he told the World Editors Forum.

The Wall Street Journal project is just one example of a digital trend whereby innovation for new media is being found in historical stories and archival data.

A similar project at Swiss daily newspaper, Le Temps is underway in a collaboration with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL). The archiving project will see 4 million articles from Swiss papers from the last 200 years analysed, digitized and semantically organised for easier access to historical stories.

This wealth of data will enable journalists “to rebuild social networks presenting connections between places, persons and events and biographic indications” in a new ‘Facebook the past’ initiative, says Virginie Fortun, head of strategy and business development at Le Temps. The project will attempt to give Swiss history a virtual life of its own.

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