How to Wrangle Mayhem: Experimental Journalism at WVU
Back in February, I wrote about my plans for a “data-driven device-centric story-form agnostic multimedia project” for my class at West Virginia University. The J-School’s first experimental journalism class was also my first chance to walk students through an untraditional approach to building a story, a process that has been at the heart of my work as a graphics editor and visual journalist.
Had I a dollar for every time someone has asked me to “work my magic.”
For word-side folks, making visual stories out of data and imagery is a mystery. However, like any creative process, it’s a process. It has methods and rigor, and it’s something that can be taught. I know this because it is something I’ve learned. So teaching it during a moment when news organizations are reshuffling story forms and new media companies are emerging with what are often very visual approaches to journalism felt incredibly relevant.
In May, as students across the country were heading into finals week, we published our look inside the culture of academic doping on WVU’s campus: Drugnextdoor.com.
We delved into the use of ADHD medications on campus from every angle — from the students who take the drugs to stay up late partying to the campus doctors who struggle with diagnosing students with ADHD to international students who were completely gobsmacked that academic doping existed at all. We also faced the challenge of making a visual story without a lot of visuals. Students were willing to talk about their drug use, but not on camera. Nevertheless, in the end we had video, photos, audio, charts, a live feed of Twitter and Instragram, as well as some pretty great memes as compelling art.
Sharing lessons learned
So as a follow-up to my initial post and in the spirit of collaboration, I’m sharing a practical guide to the tools we used, some of the lessons learned and hopefully a little bit about what goes into the sleight of hand.
The class was co-chaired by Prof. John Temple, who kept the day-to-day running, with guidance from Dana Coester, the head of WVU’s nascent innovation center. Classes were held Tuesdays for two hours and 20 minutes via Google Hangout. (I’m in New York, and the students were in Morgantown, West Virginia). I also visited campus four times during the semester, timing my visits to kick off the project, help shape the initial reporting, move it into production and launch it.
The classroom had a projector, so my big head was on the screen every week. The hangouts were great because students who couldn’t make it into class could join remotely. The only real glitch was a snow day when everyone was joining from home and Hangouts limited the number of people. Also, there were occasional connectivity issue, so be sure to have a reliable network in place.
For structure, I set up a Google calendar with the phases of the project and guests. Then during the reporting phase we, used Google drive for sharing material. Reporting, data, video and photos would get dumped into the shared project folder. In retrospect, it would have been smart to settle on a structure for the folders ahead of time — one for each individual class or folders for specific assets or assignments, so there was less dumping and more filing. Also, as far as sticking to a schedule, no matter how much wiggle room you build into a project, there’s never enough time. I gave myself an extra week at the end for contingencies. That was cutting it close.
Mapping, plotting and refining
Heading into the design phase, Elaine McMillion, the rockstar multimedia producer of Hollow and a former WVU student, drew a story map, and I mocked up wireframes using Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, which a student later refined. And refined and refined. This was something I wish I had had more time to teach — how to structure various elements to make a story, how to sort through a ton of material to find what’s relevant. We had come to a point in the semester, however, where deadline was looming and it made more sense for me to show the students where were we going rather than have them walk through the process.
During the production phase, as we went from raw to finished product, Elaine kept us humming. She set up two files: an in-progress space for editing and a final folder space for finished assets for our developer. Elaine also set slugging conventions for video and photo assets. To edit copy, we used Google docs and kept our comments within each document. This was a great way to keep the conversation clear and organized. Nothing worse than the email chain that spirals out of control.
As to building the project, we lost both developers in class — one who was a student and one who was working for the j-school. Coding was outsourced at the 11th hour to Andrew Garcia Phillips of Chartball.com. He built the project using Bootstrap. Andrew and I have worked together since we were cubs at the New York Times, so the translation from material to publication was seamless. Tacking development on to the end, however, was a classic gaffe and yet another instance of showing versus doing. My intention had been to have, at minimum, the students see how the code fit together. Had we another semester, I would have loved to have taught them the basics of designing a project and some simple HTML and CSS, or waded into Bootstrap.
The students brought great material to the table, but I wish they had been able to play a larger part in taking it over the finish line. Still, with 16 weeks and an ambitious agenda, there was no time.
My secret weapon: guest lecturers
I scheduled industry experts to speak to each phase of the project. This was priceless. To start, because I wanted the students to feel connected to the data driving the project, we conducted a survey on campus. I brought in Megan Thee-Brenan from the NYT, a former colleague who was always up for walking me through the nuances of survey statistics and language, followed by Rob Barry, a data and investigative reporter I work with at the WSJ to talk about finding stories within datasets.
As we got into the reporting, two producers of first-rate mobile news visited: Brian Boyer from NPR on mobile-first and Zach Seward from Quartz on writing for the web. Matt Craig, a former WSJ colleague and CEO of Blink.la, covered video shooting stills.
In my zeal to keep each class engaging, however, I didn’t block out enough time to simply work together, so we lost a few guests.
Allison Lichter from the WSJ social media teams was scheduled to discuss social and audience engagement, but the students had such strong ideas about how they wanted to get the project out on social, I stepped back and let one of the students lead the process. Again, had we more time, we could have spent several classes on social.
Then finally, as we were about to launch production, I brought in Greg Pliska, film/TV/theater composer and musical director of Warhorse, to talk about collaboration, the creative process and how to bring together a seemingly disparate set of elements. Having the guests in class was a lot of fun for all of us, myself included. Each one of them told the story about how they came to be journalists. With Greg though, his career in music added a different dimension to our discussion. He was a bit of a wildcard. To me, what he does was a bit of a mystery, but, guess what? The creative process in its varied forms was unchanged. The magic behind what he does is methods and rigor, too.
The project launched in the end of April. In an inspired moment of guerrilla marketing, the students wrapped telephone poles around campus with pill bottles promoting the project. The stories we found during the course of reporting were surprising, sometimes shocking and even a bit depressing. In the first week we had roughly 1,500 page views, and an additional 1,500 in the six weeks since then. More than half our traffic came from mobile.
Sarah Slobin www.sarahslobin.com is a visual journalist at the Wall Street Journal making data and multimedia stories on the interactive graphics desk. She spent 15 years learning data, reporting and infographics at the New York Times and then three years as graphics director at Fortune & Fortune.com learning to make shiny magazines. She thinks the future of news may well involve dogs.