Executive Summary

Supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The MIT Open Documentary Lab (OpenDocLab) conducted an eight-month research project mapping and assessing the dynamics of an ongoing convergence between interactive and participatory documentary practices and digital journalism. The project launched in October 2014 with a convening at MIT, The New Reality: Exploring the Intersection of New Documentary Forms and Digital Journalism. Forty leading professionals from the worlds of interactive documentary, digital journalism and the academy gathered together to discuss and identify key issues relevant for the study. These findings informed our research which also included interviews, site visits, and readings. This report is the culmination of our research.

Today’s networked digital technologies differ fundamentally from the centralized media systems that dominated the 20th century. This has led to a series of disruptions in legacy media industries, many of which have simply extended familiar ways of thinking to the Internet only to find income elusive, user-bases unpredictable, and competition from digital-first upstarts fierce. The implications for established industries are serious, but the threat to the continued creation and spread of quality journalism and, with these, the needs of an informed society, are profound. This report examines how several quality journalism organizations have responded by experimenting with new, digitally native forms of storytelling. In so doing, this report highlights best practices applicable to a much wider range of journalistic outlets.

The report can be read literally, as a detailed investigation of organizational experience in exploring new story forms and ways of reaching the public in digital terra incognita. It can also be read more symptomatically, offering insights into the dynamics of change. From this second perspective, the story is less about particular large-scale experiments in interactivity and more about insights into underlying technologies, techniques, production processes, and collaborations that engender journalistic transformation. These insights offer a scalable set of blueprints (and warnings) for organizations of all sizes that wish to make more effective use of today’s dominant platforms (mobile) and technological capacities (interactive), while expanding their reach to different demographics and levels of user participation.

The convergence of digital journalism and interactive and participatory documentary, two forms at the defining edges of their respective fields, is the focus of this report. Why interactive and participatory documentary? Because these immersive, visual and, above all, experimental narratives have developed rapidly over the past few years, offering wide-ranging examples for journalists who seek to reach new audiences, to enhance the relevance of their reporting for an informed, engaged citizenry, and to make better use of the interactive and collaborative potential of today’s mobile technologies.

This report contextualizes and maps the views of the people who are leading change, charting their ambitions and concerns, tracking their organizations and strategies, and interpreting the larger patterns that emerge as storytellers and producers redefine their arts. It considers such institutional imperatives as reorganizing the production pipeline and means of distribution, listening to and working together with audiences, partnering with other media organizations, and looking to internal assets such as archives.

Case studies drawn from organizations such as The New York Times, The Guardian, National Film Board of Canada, NPR, AIR, Frontline, and other sector-leading organizations examine change within particular institutions, as well as alliances between them and the production and distribution of particular joint projects. A broader environmental assessment of the conditions faced by legacy journalism organizations complements and situates the case studies. Against this backdrop, the case studies illustrate innovations and opportunities that have recently emerged at the intersection of journalism and documentary, charting best practices as well as lessons learned that can help quality journalism thrive in this fast-changing ecosystem.

By analyzing the insights of thought leaders together with trends, techniques, and technologies for creating interactive, reality-based stories, we show why these emergent creative forms and strategic partnerships matter for the future of both journalism and documentary.

This report’s key takeaways include:

- Begin with the user. Thinking about user experience, understanding user behavior, and being in dialogue with the intended public[Ma1] at the beginning of an interactive documentary or journalistic project is fundamental to reaching and engaging with that public.

- Let story determine form. The story and materials should determine the storytelling techniques employed, and not vice-versa; interactivity and participation provide an expanded toolkit that can enhance clarity, involvement, meaning, and “spreadability,” but they are not “one-size-fits-all” solutions.

- Experiment and learn. Interactive and participatory documentaries can provide “research and development” opportunities for journalism organizations, which may then adapt relevant tools, techniques, and experiences for their future work.

- Collaborate across borders. In an era when word, sound, and image flow together into one digital stream, media institutions fare better when they partner with like-valued organizations, form interdisciplinary teams, and co-create with their publics.

- Shape conversations. Interactivity and user participation can enable and inform the connection between audiences and sources, helping journalism to shape conversations in addition to defining truths.

- Use archives creatively. Legacy journalism organizations can make much better use of a defining asset—their archives—to build deep, interactive story environments, distinguishing their voices in a crowded news environment and empowering their users to explore how events and their coverage take shape.

- Consider long-term impact. A cost-benefit analysis of interactive and participatory storytelling in journalism settings should include not only audience reach and impact, but also organizational innovation in the form of new teams, processes, and tools that can be integrated into other parts of the newsroom.

The wisdom and experience of journalists and documentarians in the interactive domain offer ways to achieve new levels of journalistic excellence and impact. These goals will not be easily achieved in traditional journalism organizations, especially at a time of declining revenues. Yet, inspiring examples abound of what is feasible with an expanded storytelling tool set, the capabilities of digital networks, and the creative and civic potentials unleashed in new workflow configurations, partnerships, and community collaborations. The current transition, for all of its disruptions, offers ways to make fuller use of journalistic archives, audiences as partners, and new and immersive story techniques.

Embracing change is rarely easy, but the stakes for informed civic participation are too important for business-as-usual, and the potential rewards are too ripe to ignore.