Freelance writer Amanda Hirsch, former editorial director of PBS Interactive, blogs about documentaries and the Web in her column, Outside the Frame, published every other Wednesday.
“MediaStorm’s principal aim is to usher in the next generation of multimedia storytelling.” So announces the website for New York-based multimedia production company MediaStorm.
Sound ambitious? Just a bit. But when you’re winning Emmy and Webby Awards left and right, beating industry giants like NYTimes.com, National Geographic Online, and Current TV, people tend to take your ambitions seriously.
So what’s the secret to MediaStorm’s success? Some whiz-bang, high-tech, Web 2.0 approach to storytelling?
Hardly. Founder Brian Storm, a Corbis and MSNBC.com vet and Missouri School of Journalism grad, explained MediaStorm’s approach to me over email: “We look for stories that are in-depth and that speak to universal emotions that are shared by all of us — emotions that are deep in our DNA. We focus on stories that are timeless.”
Can I hear the people say “amen”?
Start with the story — it’s such a simple idea, and yet, one that’s easy to lose sight of in the rush to be cool and hip online. But MediaStorm, with its arresting photojournalism, accompanied by audio of the photographs’ subjects, is unquestionably cool — cooler than all the other sites where it seems as though most of the imagination went into the interface design, and the content was an afterthought. Storm agrees that interactive design can often get in the way of strong content. While he’s been involved in interactive development for over a decade, he ultimately finds that more often than not, asking users to navigate interactive interfaces disrupts the storytelling experience. “I’m a big believer in the merits of a director-driven narrative,” Storm explains. “I think that’s the way we tell each other stories — [we] have been for a long, long time and it simply works.”
Director-driven narratives do work, and there is enormous narrative power in MediaStorm’s documentaries, from “Intended Consequences,” about the women victims of the Rwandan genocide, to “Common Ground,” which juxtaposes two Midwestern families — one that watches as their farm is replaced by cookie-cutter suburban houses, while the other creates a life together in one of those houses. These documentaries, though presented online, demand that you sit down, take your hand off the mouse and really watch them. I’ll confess I don’t watch much online (I’m old school that way — I associate “watching” with TV), but these pieces, and others in MediaStorm’s impressive archive, were completely absorbing. I also found them unusually intimate, perhaps because I was viewing such powerful images in very close proximity, just inches away on my laptop screen. Brian Storm, though, is quick to point out his team’s projects are “platform agnostic.” He says, “We feel that compelling stories will work at [a distance of] one foot on the intimate mobile experience, at two feet on the web and at eight feet from the couch equally well.”
And here we land at that one area where I feel MediaStorm’s approach falls short. In my mind, to see the Web as just a distribution outlet is to miss out on tremendous storytelling opportunities. While director-driven narrative may be innate, I think the Web is also teasing other storytelling approaches out of human nature, including a kind of bottom-up storytelling where no one person is steering the narrative. In this kind of storytelling, images and ideas come together to tell the story of an event; for example, the story of celebrations in the streets nationwide on election night is told through countless photos from flickr, thousands of blog entries and the constant updates that crashed the Twitter server last Tuesday night.
If MediaStorm really aspires to “usher in a new generation of multimedia storytelling,” doesn’t it need to more actively explore the Web’s potential as a storytelling medium?
Storm punts a bit on this question. “There’s no one solution on the web,” he says. “We all own a printing press now, so for sure, you will see a variety of approaches, some new, some old, some good, some bad, play out in this space.”
What do you think? What constitutes good online storytelling? What are the best examples you’ve seen?
If the idea of online storytelling is brand new to you, here are links to some individuals and groups dedicated to the craft: