A new kind of storytelling

Other unique digital storytelling from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

— An American Teenager: Special report on a mass shooting: http://investigations.myajc.com/fedex-shooter/

— Special report on Atlanta in Baseball's Hall of Fame: http://baseballvoices.myajc.com

— War in our Backyards, The story of 1864 Atlanta: http://battleofatlanta.myajc.com/

— Special report on special admissions at Division 1 Colleges: http://investigations.myajc.com/football-admissions/

We hear from many readers how much they love the printed newspaper, and how they don’t want to read the paper online.

If you are one of those print loyalists, let me assure you, we have no plans to force you to give up print.

But I'd also like to suggest you try out digital access, for a reason you may not have considered: Some stories are just better when told online.

Case in point: “Forgotten Memories,” a story we published recently about one family’s encounter with dementia, of which Alzheimer’s Disease is the leading cause.

The print story, which appeared in “Personal Journeys” in the Sunday Living & Arts section, was truly special. Crafted by Jill Vejnoska, one of our strongest writers, the story sensitively and deeply explored how three generations of women are coming to terms with hereditary dementia.

As special as the text-and-photos version of the story is, it pales beside the digital version, a mini-documentary mixing Vejnoska’s text with incredible video storytelling and explanatory graphics. The rich tapestry is different from anything you’ve ever experienced in a paper newspaper.

“Immersive, interactive storytelling allows us to tell more facets of a story than we can in print,” said Vejnoska’s editor on the story, Suzanne Van Atten. “It gives the story multiple entry points, more layers and the ability to get a more nuanced understanding of the subjects and the story.”

The incredible digital version of this story, found at memories.myajc.com, was built by a group in our newsroom called the news applications team. This team uses computer programming languages to tell stories in new ways.

“We aren’t just web developers — we’re journalists and storytellers who use data, code and design, rather than the written word, as our vehicle for communication,” explained news applications developer Ashlyn Still. “Every technical decision we make and every feature we choose to build is meant to enhance the story experience for the reader. The process is entirely content-driven.”

Still and her colleague on the news apps team, Emily Merwin, drove the technical and visual decisions that made “Forgotten Memories” come to life. They wanted to create a completely immersive experience. Check it out and you will see how well they succeeded, even from the first second of the digital story, when readers hear and see a moving park swing.

Merwin said the project took a lot of experimentation, especially to handle the many video segments that let readers get to know the characters in the story.

“We struggled with this part because we had a lot of great content which we wanted to show at a high resolution and there are tradeoffs when it comes to loading time and smoothness, ” Merwin said. “Some older computers just didn’t have the power to handle it without crashing. We had to cut some content and sacrifice some video quality to make it work for everyone.”

Getting the story to look and work well on laptop and desktop computers was hard enough. Then Merwin and Still had to make it work on smartphones. “Mobile was a whole other problem,” Merwin said. “We ended up writing separate code and even switching out some media elements on mobile. The entire process involved a lot of trial and error, feedback and retooling.”

The great video in the piece was shot by photojournalist Ben Gray, who had a lot of help from videographer Ryon Horne.

Gray has more than 20 years of experience shooting photos for print. In recent years he’s become quite expert at video. When I asked Gray about the most memorable parts of the work, he cited an element that has always been key to great storytelling: connecting with the story subjects, Carolyn Cook and her family. “Watching Carolyn and her family gave me a very deep appreciation for the confounding ways dementia affects families by forcing them to live within the reality of the person with dementia,” Gray said.

One aspect of the project is a series of interactive explanatory graphics that detail the progression and other statistical aspects of Alzheimer’s. Scott Peacocke, senior editor for data journalism and the news applications team’s manager, spent a lot of time at Emory’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center to learn more about the disease and its effects.

He noted that the presentation that emerged would never be possible in print. “The written word is a powerful medium, but often photos and videos have an emotional impact that goes beyond even the finest writing.” Peacocke said. “And the use of infographics and data visualization offers a broader context of the overall issue, without interfering with the flow of the narrative story. It gives readers more choices in how deep they want to go on a story or topic.”

Peacocke is an AJC veteran who started in the sports department in 1987. The team he leads includes the youngest journalists in our newsroom.

The mix of experience and new skills is exciting and offers a lot of promise. For those who worry about the future of journalism, I urge you to listen to Still, the youngest member of our journalism tribe:

“Great storytelling isn’t going anywhere. In fact, I only see storytelling improve with the capabilities the digital sphere brings. The web provides endless opportunity for experimentation in journalism.”