Avoiding ‘story killers,’ finding genius moves with NYT’s O’Leary at #BUNarrative


Amy OLearyAs online publishers chase clicks, some rely on gimmicks to boost traffic, while others use more innovative formats. During a standing room-only breakout session on Friday afternoon at the Power of Narrative Conference in Boston, New York Times reporter Amy O’Leary explored these boundaries.

In Genius Moves, Cheap Tricks and Story Killers: An overview of some of the latest techniques, approaches and strategies, O’Leary shared examples and solicited audience reactions to several others. Publishers are “trying to figure out how to monetize journalism,” she told attendees. “It’s a scary landscape with a lot of unknowns and people are trying a lot of things, which is exciting.”

Here’s a look at the stories and strategies O’Leary shared.

Story killers: Clichés are a common story killer, said O’Leary, citing tear-jerking backstories about Olympians who’d lost close family members and wind chimes as the opening image in a video as all-too-common tropes. “That sad music comes up, there’s a sad person sitting on the couch,” she said of the latter.

Another potential story killer is what O’Leary calls “death by a thousand choices,” where the reader can choose to navigate through a multimedia package by clicking on different images without any guidance on where they should go next. “Anytime you’re giving people the option to click on [different multimedia elements] you’re telling them it’s not totally essential,” she said. “When you don’t interweave in a tighter way, multimedia becomes a distraction.” Digressions can add interesting layers to a story, but interrupts distract the reader.

Cheap tricks: For O’Leary, infographics, listicles and headlines that pose a question or use a superlative often fall into the category of cheap tricks that can be very effective—or fall flat—depending on their execution. By appealing to the “lizard brain,” sites like Buzzfeed attract thousands of clicks from listicles that “you probably clicked on even if you didn’t want to,” she said.

A better appeal, she continued, is to the curious brain where the writer builds a narrative question into the front of the piece to pique the reader’s interest. Of Slate’s top 10 stories of 2012, four of them used a headline in the form of a question. Content mills also use the question format to generate traffic, so it’s important that the article actually answers the question instead of filling the reader with empty hope and, ultimately, frustration. The current craze for infographics, animated GIFs and graphic narrative (O’Leary mentioned Symboliamag.com as a cool example of drawing readers into a story) appear to the visual brain, but not all infographics are well executed, especially if they lack a clear narrative. “You can find infographic hell on Pinterest,” quipped O’Leary.

Genius moves: The single factor that all mind-blowing multimedia work shares is the element of surprise. “The beautiful thing about surprise is it can happen on so many levels,” said O’Leary. Stories can use unique visuals or format to surprise and delight readers. O’Leary pointed to “Glitter in the Dark,” a Pitchfork profile on Bat for Lashes’ Natasha Khan. Two New York Times digital stories from 2012 also fit this category: “Just One More Game …” a piece about the addictiveness of gaming that used an interactive visual to mimic its subject and “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek,” a multimedia piece that incorporated video, flyover graphical illustrations, slideshows and a written account of the avalanche.

“Snow Fall” was heralded in many journalism circles as a major achievement of online storytelling, but O’Leary revealed that some of the reporters who worked on Snow Fall felt the multimedia could have been even more tightly integrated into the narrative. Two more examples, Whitney Jone’s “First Love and 27 Other Firsts” and “Alma,” a web documentary about a Guatemalan woman in a gang, sparked debate among attendees over the fine line between gimmick and genius. “The best stuff is always when people haven’t seen it before,” said O’Leary. “Our new CEO says ‘The next Snow Fall will look nothing like Snow Fall.’”