How the New York Times is learning lessons about digital storytelling and audience engagement as The Great War resonates through a century

The New York Times is experimenting with cutting edge 21st digital storytelling to explore the legacies of The Great War, which began in earnest 100 year ago this week. And it’s learning valuable lessons about contemporary journalism in the process.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | August 8, 2014

The ability of history to repeat and reverberate across decades revealed itself in the project built around an interactive map that allows users to explore the geopolitical impacts of World War 1.

The Great War – a 100 year legacy of World War 1, which was anchored at The New York Times Paris Bureau, is the product of inter-continental and cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Key lessons from the project include:

  1. The importance of taking a non-hierarchical approach to the production of major digital storytelling projec
  2. The capacity of such projects to foster experimentation with social media, audience engagement and User Generated Content (UGC).
  3. The valuable role of nostalgia in engaging audiences
  4. The editorial value of identifying synergies between present conflicts and crises, and their historic roots

The Times Europe Editor Dick Stevenson, spoke to Julie Posetti about the evolution of The Great War project and what it continues to teach the team who produced it.

What was the thinking behind The Great War immersive story? What were your main objectives and how did the project begin?

Stevenson: Early this year we began to brainstorm a little bit about how we wanted to take note of the 100th anniversary of WWI and what we could do to make it both something that…was an engaging historical review of that period but also linked it to the issues that are confronting the world today. And we thought about the wealth of archival material and the kind of geographical developments we’ve seen over the last hundred years and certain conflicts – military, ideological and so forth – across much of the world, we hit on making this a multimedia first approach, built around a kind of map-based view of things. Meaning that we not only wanted to do something that would show the literal geography but also that we wanted to find places from which we could tell stories that were anchored in events, developments, ideas from that period 100 years ago, but that remained alive literally or figuratively in those same places today.

How did the project evolve?

Stevenson: The next step really was to identify what those places and themes were and we chose some places that were probably relatively obvious, you know, in Western Europe – things that had to do with kind of set piece battles, or turning points in the military conflict but also we tried to think about places that allowed us to explore some broader historical themes. One example I could point to there is Iraq and the saga of Gertrude Bell (the British spy and diplomat) and her effort in trying to create what became a modern Iraq and how all that in a very timely way, that we certainly couldn’t have anticipated and early stage when we decided on that piece. What’d become particularly compelling would be more or less invasion of Iraq by Isis early this summer so that was kind of the thinking behind this both in terms of the content and the presentation.

And Ukraine, for example, there’s a piece there that was conceived originally more as a look at a place in Ukraine… But by the time we got around to executing this, it evolved into something that was much more pointedly about the tug and pull between Russia on one side and Europe to the other. Which had a very, very resonant feeling to it.

Legacies of WW1 still apparent in UkraineLegacies of WW1 still apparent in Ukraine

How did you pull together the international NYT team for the project? And how was the collaboration managed? 

Stevenson: It is a collaboration between our international desk, correspondence in the field, our graphic interactive, operations, photo, video… we drew on all of our resources to try and put together something that looked good and would draw readers in and could be resurfaced from time to time in a way that would get people coming back over and over and over again.

I mean, it wasn’t a very hierarchical thing. You know, there were reporters, editors, video people and graphics and interactive people and it just kind of evolved and everybody worked well together and it didn’t actually require all that much high level management. We did most of the editing pieces here (in Paris) but that’s a slightly different question… a process question.

I think any news organization that is trying to work across platforms, and try to do innovative things reaching and engaging readers in different ways, it’s going to have to make room to bring ideas in from wherever they might come from.  And that requires a bigger table and a freer discussion and a lot more flexibility. And I think a lot of the interesting multimedia things we’ve done have had that quality to them and have drawn on all kinds of different inspiration and they have evolved along the way and don’t always turn out the way you might have envisioned them early on.

In terms of the audience engagement what specifically were you aiming for thinking about the readership, your community of interest around this nostalgic piece? What kind of audience engagement were you hoping for and has that been fulfilled so far?

Stevenson: You know, in terms of particular audience engagement we did a lot and are continuing to do a lot on social media, particularly Twitter on this to try to draw people’s attention to it and keep them coming back to it. We’re also hoping that we will continue to add components to this as time goes by, and one of the things that we’re hoping to do is have a piece or several pieces that get at family histories and remembrances, and archival material that people might have; whether it’s pictures, diaries, souvenirs of one kind or another from that period, and create a discussion around that.

That’s not something that we have fully settled on yet but we have some ideas in mind and we’re hoping that could really create a user/reader-run kind of discussion that would allow us to kind of host it, and then let people through comments, through social media, whatever; platform organically emerges, have an interesting discussion and have kind of a meeting place for people.

Are you thinking about creating some sort of portal as part this site, or having a space within the project itself that allows people to upload user-generated content and create community discussions? Or are you simply thinking of trying to get them to do it through their own platforms using a hashtag? 

Stevenson: Those are all good questions. I don’t have the answers to those yet. You know, obviously for a news organization user generated content is tricky. And particularly for us, it’s tricky. You know, there’s the question of ‘how much do you take ownership of this stuff?’ and ‘how do you moderate it?’ and ‘how much do you really need to know about it before you host it?’ So, those are things we’re going to have to grapple with – certainly these are things that we’re thinking about way beyond the confines of this particular project. But if nothing else, this project has been an opportunity internally for us to think about this kind of thing.

You said it’s “particularly difficult for us” to think about user-generated content and its incorporation in a project like this. Why do you say that? 

Stevenson: Because we’re a very high visibility news organization – we hold ourselves, and others hold us, to the highest standards and if you kind of throw your platform open to virtually anything, you’re going to get virtually everything.

And I think most readers or viewers are pretty sophisticated about the distinction between our own content and other people’s content but still, it’s a little bit of a murky area. There are legal issues related to the use of some material, and it can be very time consuming and resource heavy to manage that kind of thing. I mean, right now we moderate our comments – we don’t just throw the door wide open and let anybody post anything. You know, we want it to be a civil conversation that meets certain standards. And that’s expensive and time consuming. And if you extend that concept to all kinds of content coming from readers, it gets that much more complicated.

To go back to one of the points you were making, nostalgia or history, however you want to define it, can be very powerful in terms of attracting readers and you know, certainly when you have a rich trove of pictures, video and in our case, the archives not just of the New York Times but the precursors of the International New York Times, the International Herald Tribune there’s a lot of opportunity to take advantage of what you already have there. But I also think it’s important that we remember our function as a news organization and we try, wherever possible, to connect that history to what’s actually going on in the world today. You know, I think that’s where we have comparative advantage and opportunity to, you know, use that archival material in a pretty sophisticated way.

You’ve said you’ve done quite a bit with social media in reference to this project. Could you elaborate on your social media strategy?

We’ve used both Twitter and Facebook for this project and mostly it has been a matter of pushing out the individual stories at different times and trying to bring a new readership back. One of the things we’ve learned in the social media era is that stories can have a real long afterlife or multiple afterlives, even after they have been “published” for a while. You know particularly thing like this that are, if not timeless, then at least not subject to becoming stale within the 24 hour news cycle. And one of the things a project like this does, it gives us a bit more of an opportunity to use social media in that way.

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