Lessons from The Road: Learning from our foray into collaborative digital media

Lessons from The Road: Learning from our foray into collaborative digital media

Early this year, Ryan DeRose started bugging my editor, Giles Morris, about a story in The New York Times.

Like us, the founder of the local digital agency Vibethink had been dazzled by Snow Fall, a multimedia interactive feature on a deadly 2012 Oregon avalanche that won the Times a Pulitzer this year.

What Snow Fall did was seamlessly weave visual and audio elements—911 calls, a CG recreation of the avalanche that showed the real-time speed of the hurtling snow—into a compelling narrative in a way that made them essential components of the story. It was beautiful, and to many of us, it looked like the start of a new chapter in digital journalism. We sat in front of our screens, wistfully scrolling through it, ideas for our own epic online storytelling sagas unspooling in our heads.

DeRose did not simply sit and scroll. He came to C-VILLE with a proposal to put the model to work locally. He found a willing partner in Morris, and they found an eager reporter in me. They agreed Charlottesville’s first stab at a new approach to online journalism should take on not a soft feature, but one of the oldest, densest policy fights in Central Virginia: The battle over the Western Bypass. Unsexy, maybe, but important. The Road was born.

It was, from day one, a very different approach to developing and bringing home a story. The broad goals, the narrative structure, the way the piece would look on the page—all of it was hashed out with Vibethink’s staff in their office in a series of work sessions, each a flurry of whiteboard pens and sticky notes.

“There’s this idea that the creative process of storytelling in a modern space, especially to talk about complex issues and ideas, is potentially the work of a team rather than an individual wordsmith,” DeRose said when we sat down to talk about the project last week. We built something meant to be read online, not posted to the Web as an afterthought, so the digital elements were as central to the piece as the narrative conceit of getting two diametrically opposed parties together to drive the Bypass route.

Since the story launched a month ago, it has generated record page visits and a lot of praise, both for the reporting on the issue and the innovative way it was presented online. The Association of Alternative News Media, Poynter, and others took notice with Web writeups on the piece. Street Fight, an online magazine that covers the business of local media, said the piece moved community news closer to a model that could deliver dense topics in an engaging way, calling it “exhaustive, but not, despite its wonkish policy implications, exhausting.”

And it got people talking. Nearly 600 readers answered the survey at the end of the story. People were a little reluctant to use a feature that allowed them to leave notes in the margins of the piece, but a robust dialogue developed in the comments section.

Criticisms have rolled in, too. We didn’t touch every argument, and stakeholders on both sides of the issue felt we left important stones unturned. The issue of traffic safety, for instance.

“Data shows that of all the traffic accidents on U.S. 29 from the Key Bridge to North Carolina—that’s 218 miles—49 percent of them occur in Charlottesville and Albemarle,” said Timothy Hulbert, president of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce, and getting through traffic, especially trucks, off the stop-and-go local stretch of the highway is expected to bring that number down.

Morgan Butler, an attorney at the anti-Bypass Southern Environmental Law Center, said he thought the piece did a good job of laying out the issues surrounding the road in a digestible format. But he also said our treatment should have stressed the point that the project costs may rise dramatically, as VDOT has acknowledged there are major flaws in multiple elements of contractor Skanska-Branch’s current design. The state sold the road to the public with a $240 million price tag, “and they figure once it’s approved, people agree to the price increases,” he said.

There’s another question at play here, too: Is this kind of news feature feasible and replicable in a small media market? The collaboration with Vibethink was about more than content; DeRose’s team put hundreds of hours into the project with the understanding that they’d end up with a showcase piece. It remains to be seen whether such labor-intensive storytelling will pay for itself in the future.

DeRose thinks it’s not just possible, but necessary, to make such articles the new normal. He believes every story could be enhanced by the process we took—writers, editors, and designers working together to build a piece that treats visuals, words, and overall experience as tools of equal value, and gives readers multiple ways to talk back.

“For me, this was validation of some of these theoretical ideas in media, and how we can transform media,” he said.

It was for me, too. Having lived and breathed this project for weeks, I’ll be the first to say that not every story can be The Road, but I hope I’m not alone in looking ahead to the next big interactive piece. Now’s the time for you to weigh in. What topic should we “Snow Fall” next? Tell us online, or e-mail news@c-ville.com.