Why great storytelling starts with visuals, planning

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Reprinted from GateHouse Newsroom

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune recently published a seven-part narrative by Chris Anderson, a Best of GateHouse winner, on the mystery behind a missing solider.

The buzz about "What happened to Mason?" started with a video trailer promoting the series and an innovative digital site featuring illustrations by Jennifer Borresen, Sarasota's projects visualization editor.

Jennifer discusses the importance of telling stories visually in high-end projects:

GateHouse Newsroom: The illustrations are stunning for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune's latest project, "What happened to Mason?" Why did the project team opt to tell the story this way?

Jennifer Borresen: From the first meeting, there was a clear need to tell Mason's story, visually, in a very different way.  The challenge was to reach into the past to tell a story that had very little photos and the ones we had access to, were too small to use. We needed to illustrate that which photography could not show the reader. Matching tone of story to style is so important in visual storytelling, it easily led itself to a mystery, graphic novel feel.

GHN: The Herald-Tribune also put together a video trailer to promote the Mason project. What can other newsrooms learn from this approach?

JB: Viewers are digesting so much in the ways of video these days. Newsroom need to reach their readers with more than just promotion text on a Facebook page. Engaging readers is the most important thing when it come to promoting your story.

GHN: What were the challenges you faced as the artist?

JB: It was important from the beginning to have the stories mostly complete before starting on any finished illustration work. One of the challenges was not having enough visual reference of our subjects. This leant itself to more silhouette sketches. In the end, I had decided this worked in our favor and gave a more mysterious feel, fitting with the story.

After reading the rough drafts, I wrote out an outline of what images would make the story work visually. Next, I started to sketch roughs in order to get an idea of concepts and the story. This stage requires many questions. What elements do I need in this illustration to tell the next part of the story? Do I even need to show the person for you to understand what is happening? All the while referring back to text to make sure the type of elements I'm drawing are correct, such as type of gun being used in a particular scene.

GHN: What can newsrooms do to think more visually when tackling in-depth reports?

JB: It sounds rather simple, but, have a visual person in your very first meeting. If the project is heavily visual, let them lead. Newsroom staff with a visual background think, well, visually. Had no visual person been present in our first meeting, would it have been the product we see today? Different newsroom members see stories in different ways. Diversity of voices to get the best storytelling is key.

GHN: This project involved a significant investment of time and resources. What were the lessons learned?

JB: Always have deadlines that are attainable. Check them off, check in with all members of the team. Have one person who will hold all the members accountable through emails or meetings.

The images in this story were also animated. That meant being finished with them early enough to where our developer could code and animate them. In the end, I created some 40 images, but handed over 89 layers of images to our developer. It is very important to know how much time each person on the team needs to do his or her job.

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