Beyond Project Thunderdome

April 3, 2014 5 comments

Yesterday reminded me of where I was two weeks ago. Burrowed into the corner of my window seat on a cross-country flight watching “You’ve Got Mail.” Yes. The Nora Ephron nineties rom-com starring Meg Ryan, Tom Hanks and AOL dial-up. I was particularly sappy that week so I couldn’t resist. As I was watching the film for the third or fourth time, this scene felt especially poignant.

For those who haven’t seen it (why?!), here’s some context. Mega bookstore owner Joe Fox explains, and partially apologizes, to Kathleen Kelly for putting her family-owned bookstore out of business by saying “it wasn’t personal.” 

We’ve all heard that expression before. It’s synonymous with the realities of doing business. Buyouts, bankruptcies, takeovers, mergers, acquisitions, firings, layoffs, all of it can be absolved in one phrase. But this is Kelly’s response:

“What is that supposed to mean? I am so sick of that. All that means is that it wasn’t personal to you. But it was personal to me. It’s personal to a lot of people. And what’s so wrong with being personal, anyway?…Because whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.”

Who knew in-flight entertainment could be so profound.

the hilarious interactives team.

What a good-lookin’ interactives team.

Yesterday, everyone learned Project Thunderdome, John Paton’s Digital First initiative, was imploding. Yes, it’s all over.  As I listened to our CEO explain the strategic decision to shutter our 50-person newsroom, I have every reason to believe that Thunderdome’s demise was driven by economics. A company’s survival depends on the bottom line, and leaders have to make tough calls to preserve it. I get it and I agree, the decision wasn’t personal.

winning Thunderdome's first team bonding activity was by far a career highlight.

Winning Thunderdome’s all-staff scavenger hunt was a career highlight. I will be trash talking for years.

But standing in the meeting, exchanging glances of empathy with my peers, seeing tears well up in some of their eyes, I realized that’s not entirely true. Most if not all of us joined Thunderdome because we believed in it. Wholeheartedly. It was a job, sure, but we spent nearly two years aspiring to accomplish something greater. And in that time we got to know each other’s story. Where we grew up, our loved ones, our favorite beers, our quirky Internet obsessions, I mean, I know every editors’ leadership-personality traits for crying out loud. We did not all bond with one another the same way, but at Thunderdome it always felt more than just a newsroom, it felt like a team.

there's only one way to peel a potato.

While filming Kitchen Pop, David informed us that “There is only one way to peel a potato,” and without missing a beat, Courtney replied “You’re full of shit.” Yea, that’s my team.

Looking back, I’m glad I struck up a conversation with Robyn Tomlin at the 2012 UNITY convention. I’m thankful she introduced me to Jim Brady, who vetted me for the role. I’m grateful Mandy Jenkins invited me to come along for the ride. Thunderdome rekindled my love for journalism, and I feel fortunate to have had the chance to work with everyone at DFM. (A special thanks to Tim Rasmussen and my scrappy video team, David Freid and Courtney Wells, for also reminding me why we do what we do, especially when I needed to hear it most.)

My last day at DFM is April 17. While being unemployed is far from ideal, I’m excited to see what’s next and I’m allowing myself to be open to the possibilities. Every city is up for grabs. Every opportunity is another journey. Every newsroom a potential second home. Despite the circumstances, I’m happy to be a journalist right now. The level of empathy and support from the broader community is astounding. Visual storytelling combined with data journalism has never been more innovative. And I can’t even count the number of companies launching digital initiatives and experimenting with new business models.

Our industry is alive, messy and evolving. There’s no better time to be a bullish optimist. So here we are. My newsroom “imploded,” but we’re all walking away from the rubble far more experienced at building a digital newsroom from scratch, wiser for having tried and more resilient for having survived. And I’m confident we will. Because it’s not just the story of Project Thunderdome that strived to accomplish something greater. It’s the spirit of journalism.

my how far we've come.

Project Thunderdome circa 2012. My how far we’ve come.

Drone School

January 9, 2014 0 comments


We’ve been thinking a lot about drones recently at Thunderdome. Tom Meagher, our data editor, and I, his sidekick, lead a committee to establish guidelines for how and where our journalists can fly drones. The FAA is still trying to figure how to legislate drone flights so the legalities are murky. For instance, it is illegal to fly drones out in the open, but flying them inside a university gym is perfectly fine. So that’s what we did. Thanks to David Freid for producing our Drone School video.

Intention

December 27, 2013 0 comments

A video that reminds me of what we should all be asking:

“…what do we want people to feel?

Delight.

Surprise.

Love.

Connection.

Then we begin to craft around our intention.”

Kitchen Pop vs. Green Giant

December 25, 2013 0 comments

The day we published Kitchen Pop: Four ways to make holiday magic with your microwave, our motion graphics designer Courtney also came across Serious Eats and Green Giant’s Simple Holiday Recipes site (through an ad, no less). If you watch both videos (ours above, theirs below), the similarities are stunning.

We both use stop-motion animation to illustrate easy holiday recipes, though one is considered sponsored content while the other falls under journalism. Serious Eats features recipes made with Green Giant products while we highlight microwaveable recipes created by professional chefs. Both of our videos have step-by-step instructions, GG takes more artistic license, ours are more thorough. And one of us is clearly trying to get you to buy a product… or is it both of us? 

Screen Shot 2013-12-25 at 3.35.57 PM

Screen Shot 2013-12-25 at 3.35.36 PM

The lines are blurry. Discovering Serious Eats/GG’s site reminded me of the fuzziness between editorial and sponsored content or if there’s even a line at all. As a viewer, I enjoyed their videos. They were well produced, playful and entertaining to watch. I’m willing to bet their production budget was more than our four-person team and the few hundred dollars we spent, but would I, or anyone else, care to know the difference? Probably not.

If content is king on the web, then our competition is fierce. Advertising agencies are pouring millions of dollars a year into telling digital “stories” in equally or more effective ways. As news organizations, we need to step up our game. Regardless if it’s a feature story or an election series, we must create unique, editorial experiences that deliver the unexpected. They should excite and delight as much as they report and inform. Let’s hire talent from other industries, train staffers to collaborate with designers and developers, better understand our audience, and design thoughtful promotional strategies for projects. It takes time and resources to go beyond our day to day and re-imagine storytelling on the web. Because if we don’t, take it from me, it’s only a matter of time before companies like Green Giant will.

Firearms in the Family, the web documentary conundrum

December 16, 2013 0 comments

We spent about five months working on Firearms in the Family: the role guns play in American lives. The story moved on December 9th, less than a week before the anniversary of the shooting in Newtown. David Freid, our video journalist, and our reporter Bianca Prieto spent weeks interviewing families in California, Colorado and Michigan. On top of the days spent out in the field, each profile took about three days to edit, which isn’t surprising considering the time it takes to sift through all of the footage and to cover a delicate topic like guns and kids. Everyone was immensely proud of the final package, particularly the visual storytelling, but in hindsight would we have done it again?

Producing documentary-style videos at a news organization can be a conundrum. While the web is a natural place for these stories to live, they undoubtedly require a tremendous amount of resources to make. The best ones are a testament to the extraordinary craftsmanship in visual journalism. They’re stunning works of art. But what is the tipping point? The more time you spend with your characters, the more authentic your story becomes. But sometimes I wonder if we, as professional storytellers, pour our hearts and souls into documentary projects for ourselves or for them?

The answer should be them, but even our work for Firearms in the Family makes me think twice. Yes, we would produce these video profiles again, but could we have done them differently? Maybe feature one or two families instead of four? Strive to capture more candid moments rather than settle for talking heads? Our videos were deliberately kept under three minutes, but could we have made them more engaging? What other ways are there to put a human face to a story about American gun culture?

At the end of the day, this project was a step in the right direction. Internally, it helped us win the trust of local newsrooms and give them a taste of what we’re capable of. The videos were superb and the narratives well-written. But as editors, we need to find a balance. Web docs are only one way to tell a story. Sometimes they work magnificently, other times, it’s a term we’ve unintentionally made synonymous with quality. It’s never too late to check our work and ask ourselves why we decide to do what we do, and, most importantly, to what end.

Decoding the JFK teaser

December 2, 2013 0 comments

Decoding the Kennedy Assassination was published on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death in Dealey Plaza. Our motion graphics designer Courtney Wells produced a teaser (above) about the five most popular conspiracy theories surrounding JFK’s death. We didn’t use any talking heads or historical footage. Instead, we captured the tone, style and mood of an iconic era with imagery, text and music. We initially considered narration, but decided the “voice of God” would take viewers out of the immersive experience. The intent was to make it feel cinematic, to transport people to a time when conspiracy theories ruled the day. If we didn’t, why would they care? In many ways, this was a visual interpretation, but can it be considered visual journalism? In my opinion, yes. Is it what you would expect from a newspaper organization? Probably not. But that’s what makes it great.

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