PHOTO BY AMY DANIELSON
Paul steps outside the box as she works to understand
the complexities of digital storytelling.
Elements of Digital Storytelling home page
SCREEN SHOT SUPPLIED BY NORA PAUL
Digital Think Web site
SCREEN SHOT SUPPLIED BY NORA PAUL
Star Tribune (www.startribune.com)
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 (www.nytimes.com)
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, www.msnbc.com/modules/bigpicture/iraq),
many others have simply posted their print publications onto the
Web, failing to take advantage of the power of a new medium--digital
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 ABCNews.com, 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.
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
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 (seattletimes.nwsource.com/news/local/links/axtax).
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 (www.inms.umn.edu/digitalthink),
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.
WRITTEN BY AMY DANIELSON