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  Home > Publications > Gateway to Research & Inventions > Nora Paul
More Than One Way to Tell a Story
Nora Paul studies the impact of digital media on the storytelling process

Nora Paul


Paul steps outside the box as she works to understand the complexities of digital storytelling.

Elements of Digital Storytelling home page

Digital Think Web site

Digital Storytellers

Star Tribune (
Audio, video, and user feedback features complement the stories on this site.

Animated graphics, video, and photo galleries enhance this site's news content.

The New York Times (
Interactive presentations, users forums, and video give the user a break from the text.



Audience engagement may be the single most important consideration made by news media outlets as they vie for revenue in an increasingly competitive market. As print subscriptions drop and online news readerships grow, news outlets struggle to wholeheartedly embrace the digital media trend. While many news sites offer user-driven, interactive content (such as MSNBC's virtual news program,, many others have simply posted their print publications onto the Web, failing to take advantage of the power of a new medium--digital storytelling.

Glitches in design are inevitable in a new medium's development, but harbingers of a forthcoming digital utopia are ready to confront these challenges. Among them is Nora Paul, program director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication's Institute of New Media Studies (INMS). Named one of the world's "top ten wired women" in 2002 by, Paul continues to live up to the designation by leading industry research.

She came to the University in 2000 after spending nine years at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies where she directed programs in news library management, computer-assisted research, and new media leadership. As the editor of information services for the Miami Herald, she developed one of the first full-text electronic archives for news and introduced computer-assisted research. In her position at the University, she works to define digital storytelling and its role in the dissemination of news.

Experience the news

As a progressive and timely alternative to the conventional one-way messages posited by traditional media and still, many online content providers, the new wave of digital storytelling at the forefront of Nora Paul's research allows users to experience the news rather than just read or hear it.

Whereas each traditional medium serves a specific purpose--print delivers detailed information, radio transmits the news in a longer format with interviews and sound bites, and television dishes out on-the-scene action--digital media can weave together traditional elements (images, audio, text) with new (blogs, flash animation, user-controlled slide shows) to form a unique, highly malleable format. Categorized encyclopedic archives replace the episodic elements of the published page. Slide shows and video supplement text. Online surveys and blogs add a user perspective to the story.

Elements can be selected, based on the story being told, to add depth to an article or appeal to a specific audience. The right combination of elements can pull readers into a story and convert them into users or authors. These users then evolve into active participants, not only in the comprehension of information, but also the creation of content. Instead of simply informing viewers or readers via traditional methods, digital storytelling prompts users to offer opinions and control functions.

Digital storytelling

The INMS has been charged with examining digital storytelling through the eyes of the consumer in hopes of finding ways to more effectively communicate the news. With graduate student Christina Fiebich, Paul has created a multidimensional Web site to explore the elements of digital storytelling. The Elements of Digital Storytelling site (, funded by the Media Center at the American Press Institute, presents a concise summary of Paul's early work on digital storytelling.

The site delves deep into the realms of the "digital frontier" as Paul describes it. Not only does the site give a complete explanation of the various elements of digital storytelling--relationship, action, context, media, and communication--but it features examples of digital storytelling at work via Web links to outside sites, research articles by colleagues across the country, and a forum for dissecting and discussing the realm of the medium. "I was so tired of hearing people talk about interactive multimedia," Paul said. So she created this site to define what people have been trying to wrap their heads around for the last decade.

Building the site has given Paul many insights into the digital storytelling process. She had to decide how to best organize the site's content to flow well from Web page to Web page. The site's development also propelled a "mad hunt for cool content," she said about gathering Web examples to explain the different elements of digital storytelling. For example, The Seattle Times Web site invites users to balance the state budget ( Users can actively learn how specific budget cuts cause real-world implications. This is just one example of how a story can entice the user to learn through active participation.

Digital Think (, a new collaboration between the Media Center and the INMS, aims to further explore effective methods of digital storytelling. Paul has encountered innovative storytellers--digital poets, video bloggers, news producers, and web designers--while speaking at conferences, and she has compelled them to write essays about what digital storytelling means to the evolution of the medium. "It is meant to be an anthology site that will expand over time," said Paul. The project is intended to inspire a broadening in the thinking about digital storytelling from a number of perspectives. Mauricio Arango, from the Department of Design, Housing, and Apparel, designed the creative online interface for showcasing these essays.

Ways of seeing

What does the end-user find appealing? How can Paul and her research team analyze what people find interesting on a Web site? How can digital storytelling more effectively communicate the news? Paul steps outside the box as she works to understand the complexities of digital storytelling.
A key element of her research has been to look at the structure of gaming technology; the immersive nature of complex role-playing games allows her to explore the relationship between the digital storytelling medium and the user or author. With a grant from the College of Liberal Arts Infotech Fees Committee, Paul and colleague Kathleen Hansen are working with the video game, Neverwinter Nights. To understand how users gather information, they are studying how modification tools built into the game can be used to create new scenarios.

A collaborative project with professor Laura Ruel at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill may provide more clues about how users interact with digital stories. Paul and Ruel are developing a digital storytelling effects lab in order to look at how people are packaging online content. For example, the same information is often delivered in two different ways on a Web site--one may be an interactive video, the other a standard text-only story. They will examine different message delivery styles and what methods are most effective and engaging.

But the answers to Paul's questions may be most evident in research yet to be conducted. Recently acquired eye-tracking equipment housed in the Usability Services Laboratory in Walter Library tracks users' eye movements as they scan Web sites. Researchers can determine what site elements users fixate upon. As the test subject maneuvers through a site, observers follow blue tracking dots mimicking the subject's eye movements across a large plasma display. Paul and her team will look at how users navigate through different types of sites, how they interact with multimedia elements, how a site's layout impacts the user's experience, and how user-controlled elements impact the quality of the story being told. "It is an interesting way to see how people move through content independent of what they say they're doing," said Paul.

The object of these projects is to take the results to the storytellers. Eventually, Paul's group will recommend solutions to content providers, so news on the Web will not only prompt users to read, watch, and play, but also contribute. By tailoring the news to the user, the result will be a more enlightened public.


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