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Immersive journalism: the future of the media?

Immersive journalism pushes the boundaries of conventional news telling. It combines text, audio, video, and graphics to recreate the sights, sounds, feelings and emotions that underpin stories. Such reports are a happy medium somewhere between reading a story and watching a documentary. They are visceral.

This week, the newly launched Guardian Australia kick-started with a long-form, multimedia report of a Tasmanian bushfire: ‘Fire Storm’.

Its reception has been mixed. For some, this kind of immersive journalism is the future; it harnesses a slick, digitally savvy medium in a way that makes news and features more accessible to readers. Others have denounced the resource-hungry pieces as unnecessary for basic reporting.

So, is this style of journalism form over function?

Immersive journalism hit the mainstream in December last year when the New York Times published the Pulitzer winning ‘Snow Fall: the avalanche at Tunnel Creek’. The project, by sports journalist John Branch, was part of the Times’ step into ebook publishing and introduction of long-form narrative. Much like the avalanche, the video, audio, pictures and graphics rolled and blended in a way that was visually breath-taking – but easy to use.

Many hailed it as a triumph of newsgathering, design and innovation. New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, in a memo to her staff, said that Snow Fall “marked a cool moment in the evolution of our online storytelling”. It attracted 3.5 million page views – many from new visitors to nytimes.com.

Six months on, ‘Fire Storm’ is remarkably similar to its American predecessor in style – consider the headlines – layout and coverage of a freak, natural occurrence and its effects. Inspired by the striking photography of the Holmes family taking shelter from the bush fire in Blackman Bay, the Guardian Australia’s interactive combines feature writer Jon Henley’s text with, interviews, maps, video and audio footage – some shot by the Guardian team and some supplied by local residents.

These pieces are, however, merely the clinch in a broader media embrace of immersive content.

Atavist, a long-form journalism start-up,  has been creating ‘Snow Fall’-esque multimedia stories years before ‘Snow Fall’ existed.

Earlier this year US-based Nonny de La Pena, a pioneer of immersive journalism, was named one of “the 13 people who made the world more creative” by Co-Create magazine. Her most recent project Hunger in Los Angeles lets readers-come-viewers feel as if they are actually there as crisis unfolds at a food-bank queue. It was praised as “one of the most talked-about” pieces at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

Consider also: www.immersivejournalism.com. It investigates the new ways journalists can elicit a connection between the audience and a new story. It utilises gaming platforms and virtual environments to convey news, documentary and non-fiction stories combined with visual, audio and primary source material from the real, physical world. Readers become participants as they enter – typically in the form of a digital avatar – a virtually recreated scenario representing the news story. They take part in scripted events and can query or interact with their surroundings.

This ‘future of journalism’ is not without its critics.

Writing about ‘Snow Fall’, Hamish McKenzie of Pando Daily, questioned: how much do we really need all the extra bells and whistles? Galleries, audio clips, video, interactive graphics are “all useful and fun but often they are as equally distracting as they are additive.”

For The Atlantic journalist Derek Thompson, ‘Snow Fall’ could never be the future of journalism for a more fundamental reason: resources.  Only a handful of newsrooms worldwide have the people and money necessary to have produced ‘Snow Fall’. “Text isn’t broken,” Thompson wrote.

Then why fix it? Does immersive journalism have any real hope of a future?

Consider the above point: expense. Both pieces used huge teams and took months to produce. The report of Snow Fall took six months and its credits included a graphic design team of 11, a photographer, three camera crew and a researcher. ‘Fire Storm” used a 23 person team over three months.

In the wake of Snowfall’s online publication, GigaOM founder, Om Malik, said that the New York Times should spend $25m to produce 100 ‘Snow Fall’-like stories. Yet it is for this very same reason that Sarah Lacy wrote on Pando Daily “If this is the future of journalism, there would be no future of journalism… because no one can afford it any more.” True, spending more money and time will improve the quality of reports, the speed, the immersion afforded by the journalism. But, just how frequent can they be if only a select number of new outlets can afford to create them?

Perhaps, Lacy argues this not the future of journalism but a way of justifying the existence of big expensive newsrooms in the digital age.

Secondly, lets turn our attention to content.

As journalism progressively moves online it must evolve with technology to keep readers hooked. But what do readers benefit from the most: information written quickly, clearly and timely or the fruits of a 23-strong team debating the transition between text and video?

The avalanche at Tunnel Creek happened on 19 February 2012; ‘Snow Fall’ was published 10 months later. The bushfire in Tasmania broke out on 4 January 2013, it was not until 23 May that ‘Fire Storm’ graced our screens.

With the time and expense taken into consideration, can these – or should these – engaging techniques be quickly applied and adapted to contemporary stories – the Woolwich murder, the Oklahoma tornadoes, Syrian conflict?

This raises further questions: would many people want to be immersed in the location or take on the role of witnesses to atrocities such as the Woolwich murder? ‘Snow Fall’ and ‘Fire Storm’, while humanly relatable, were notably natural disasters – would readers be too repulsed by human atrocities? Can this new medium only work if it is used selectively?

Another important sticking point is that Internet readers have a proven shorter attention span than their print reading counterparts.  I found it hard to fully appreciate ‘Snow Fall’ before spending half an hour engrossed in its six chapters.

Reflecting on her reports of World War II, Martha Gellhorn called them a “view from the ground”. Immersive journalism is a modern day manifestation of a well-rooted concept.

It is exciting to see experiments with new forms storytelling, especially in terms of long-form journalism. I feel, however, that this form of multimedia needs also to be used in a way that benefits journalism every day. At present it appears to be rather an expensive and rare – though growing – phenomenon that indulges the media world perhaps more so than the readers.

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Rae Boocock, 24. An aspiring journalist. Loves: interviewing, writing, reporting, reading, current affairs, culture, travel, food and feminism.

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