Freelance writer Amanda Hirsch, former editorial director of PBS Interactive, blogs about documentaries and the Web in her weekly column, Outside the Frame.
Angela Morgenstern is the senior director of PBS Interactive, where she oversees teams focused on digital content, social media and online video programming.
Previously, she earned industry acclaim — and a number of awards — for her work as the producer of the FRONTLINE/World website. Working with a team of dedicated designers and developers, and a loose network of so-called “backpack reporters” across the globe, Angela pushed the boundaries of online visual storytelling, with stunning — and journalistically excellent — results.
After a stint at MTV, where she helped launch MTV News on the network’s critically acclaimed broadband channel, OVERDRIVE, Angela couldn’t resist the siren song of public media. In her current post, she’s responsible for the quality, integrity and reach of PBS’s general audience interactive content.
Given Angela’s unique background and storytelling skills, I was interested in hearing her perspective on the state of online visual storytelling today: what’s working, what’s not and what’s next.
An edited transcript of our email discussion follows.
Amanda: What are your impressions of online storytelling in 2009, particularly in the realm of news and public affairs documentaries?
Angela: I’ve become interested in ways that filmmakers can take advantage of technological advances in order to involve the audience in the storytelling. This could be through smart audience-driven choices, or even go as far as crowd-sourced material generation and collaborative documentary storytelling.
When we first launched FRONTLINE/World, we took pride in hand-crafting narratives in order to best suit each story. This included choosing the best editorial flow, navigational path, user interface and design elements. Each medium has its unique strengths. Print is great at conveying factual information. Television or the moving image can be very “emotional.” And radio/audio, by the nature of how we experience it, can be very “intimate.” One attribute of multimedia documentary is the ability to craft these various mediums seamlessly into one editorial product.
This blending of different modes of storytelling is still a unique aspect of producing stories for the Web, but these days, I’m especially interested in the ideas I mention above — involving the audience in the storytelling process.
In the news and public affairs space, many of us in public media are particularly interested in projects that try to merge tools with journalism in ways that makes stories more relevant not only to the audience’s civic life, but personal world as well.
Amanda: Tell me about examples of online storytelling that you’ve found particularly inspiring lately.
Angela: I had the unique opportunity to serve as a Blue Ribbon Panel judge for the 2008 Primetime Emmy® Award interactive media category. The finalists were amazing…It wasn’t about a simple response to a piece of content, but about harnessing the energy of the online community to give input and influence the final product online and eventually on-air. Another thing that impressed me was that the finalist projects really considered the 360 experience of the user, and as a result were not boxed in by online, on-air or marketing labels.
To see a full list and description of the entries, I recommend checking out the newteevee blog by Liz Gannes. She does a great job of describing the finalists: HBO Labs, The Heroes Digital Experience, Kyle XY The Collective Experience, Lost: Find 815 and The L Word Interactive. In my opinion, the NATAS committee and Interactive Peer Group succeeded in bringing some of the preeminent work in the field to the fore.
Another inspiring project to me is PBS KIDS GO! Broadband — specifically, their pioneering efforts to overlay games directly onto online video. They are pushing the creative boundaries of the technologies daily, and as a result, creating an experience that will draw kids “inside the story” in a way we haven’t seen to date.
Also, KCET.org’s “web stories” series presents some lovely, thoughtful portraits of the greater L.A. community. Some of the presentations are unique and quirky and true multimedia documentaries.
Zadi and Steve of EpicFu have taught me new things about how we should be engaging users and viewers to shape what we are doing.
And the PBS/YouTube “Video Your Vote” project reassured my faith in the value of reaching out to our articulate, thoughtful and diverse audience.
Amanda: What are the primary obstacles you see to pushing the art of online visual storytelling forward?
Angela: One obstacle is the current economy. When considering beautifully crafted visual storytelling online, there are challenges around budget, scalability and the ability to replicate. If each filmmaker has to reinvent the wheel with each project, there can be challenges in birthing final projects. The question is how to encourage and foster creative online innovation in a way that preserves the uniqueness of the project, but also leverages that project and technology toward other uses and audiences.
Another challenge can be the pace of technology change, which creates unique, specific and sometimes frustrating challenges during a project’s lifecycle from inception to launch. To borrow a phrase from my former MTV News colleague Benjamin Wagner, oftentimes we have to “build the plane while flying it.”
Amanda: Given your participation in the PBS green-lighting process, and your position as the senior director of PBS Interactive, you have a unique vantage point on the worlds of both documentary filmmaking and web production.
What’s your sense of the relationship that exists, if any, between these communities? Are you seeing more filmmakers inspired by the creative potential of the Web?
Angela: The technologies have advanced so far since I was working on FRONTLINE/World. For online storytellers, the options seem almost limitless. We do see some unique pitches from producers, particularly from the independent filmmaking community. Documentary producers can get really ignited by the opportunity that online presents to “unfold” a story over time, and follow it after the 56:36 run time on air ends.
That said, being part of a legacy operation can also be a challenge to some organizations, including PBS. The trick is to figure out ways to unleash the creative process so that creators can successfully marry the content, technology and creative process.
Amanda: What do you think of my “call to arms” for more multimedia documentaries? (You can be candid — it won’t hurt my feelings!)
Angela: I agree with the spirit of the “call to arms” and think it’s excellent to challenge our smart content creators to think of the Web as a storytelling medium in itself. There are a lot of amazing experiments and projects out there, and without some kind of frame like you are putting on it (“multimedia documentaries”) they can get lost.
That said, I think there is nothing wrong with projects that have “video on a Web page.” When we survey the PBS.org audience, they tell us again and again that they are keenly interested in the ability to stream high-quality online video. That’s why we’re focusing on a few upcoming efforts and exciting initiatives on broadband. At the end of the day, each project should follow the path that best suits its story and the audience it hopes to reach. The trick is not to innovate for innovation’s sake, but for the sake of the audience.
Do you agree with Angela that the poor state of the current economy will hinder the development of online visual storytelling? Or do you think limited resources will spur creativity in film and media makers?