Guest post: Telling the story without text

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, will write guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the second of those posts. Brecken Branstrator is a senior journalism major from Greensboro, N.C. Her passion is magazines, and she is an editorial intern at the Carolina Alumni Review.

When you first see a huge block of text, do you get excited and dive right into it, or are you wishing that it was shorter or broken into chunks with illustrations to go with it? You’re probably thinking the latter. That’s where alternative story formats come in. As we have been learning in class, some things just work better in illustrations.

As the same-sex marriage debate has grows, especially as California’s Proposition 8 heads for the Supreme Court, many media sites are using alternative story formats to report the issue and follow its progression. Instead of trying to write convoluted stories with many numbers or states, a number of them are creating interactive maps or slideshows of pictures. They present the issue in a visual way that allows the reader to consume the information faster and retain more.

NPR has a great example of this, with a map that not only shows the status of each state on the issue but also a feature that allows the viewer to hover over the state to see details about past legislation. This is the kind of alternative story format that readers are attracted to and appreciate because they can get the facts fast. CNN also displays the story in a very similar way.

But GOOD magazine took another route when it created an innovative flow chart that outlines the arguments for and against same-sex marriage. This chart would look good in both print and online, and actively involves the reader as they become invested in following the lines of the illustration. Its off-the-beaten-path methods are what newspapers should strive to create to attract readers to a story and enhance the text.

These sites are great examples of how alternative story formats can enhance the text of a story and how all options should be explored. An issue that progresses over a long period of time, like the same-sex marriage debate, can only be explained in text for so long before the readers get bored. So when developing a story, designers and editors should always be thinking of a different way to tell it.