Following the buzz in journalistic circles, it seems clear that interactive stories and productions have the potential to engage audiences in new and exciting ways. But how does this work exactly—and when should funders be stepping in to invest more seriously in such experiments?

A recent report funded by the MacArthur Foundation and published by the MIT Open Documentary Lab takes stock of the wide range of interactive possibilities—from augmented reality to virtual reality and beyond—and explores how case studies and lessons emerging from both newsrooms and the documentary field can inform high-impact productions.
Mapping the Intersection of Two Cultures, Interactive Documentary and Digital Journalism is aptly accompanied by its own handy interactive resources, including a timeline of landmark projects from 2008-2015 and a curated gallery in the lab’s larger docubase.
almaTake a look at this gallery and you’ll find not only now-familiar examples like The New York Times’ multimedia feature “Snow Fall,” discover unusual projects like Alma: A Tale of Violence, which allows users to toggle between a confessional interview with a Guatemalan gang member and a sometimes disturbing stream of images that supplement her story, or Bear 71,  a first-person interactive documentary from the perspective of a bear being tracked in Canada’s Banff National Park.
“The wisdom and experience of journalists and documentarians in the interactive domain offer ways to achieve new levels of journalistic excellence and impact,” observe the report’s authors and researchers William Uricchio, Sarah Wolozin, Lily Bui, Sean Flynn and Deniz Tortum.
“These goals will not be easily achieved in traditional journalism organizations, especially at a time of declining revenues. Yet, inspiring examples abound of what is feasible with an expanded storytelling tool set, the capabilities of digital networks, and the creative and civic potentials unleashed in new workflow configurations, partnerships, and community collaborations.”
Rethinking impact
Interactive projects are sometimes difficult for audiences to access given their experimental nature and the lack of established distribution systems. For funders, understanding what type of impact to expect from productions that could possibly reach fewer users than a traditional outlet or documentary film requires a shift of perspective on which outcomes matter most.
“A cost-benefit analysis of interactive and participatory storytelling in journalism settings should include not only audience reach and impact, but also organizational innovation in the form of new teams, processes and tools that can be integrated into other parts of the newsroom,” the authors write.
In other words, gathering evidence that producers are experimenting, learning, and leveraging existing resources in new ways — and that users are being invited to create, contribute and engage more deeply — might trump gathering the audience metrics that lead many traditional media evaluations. Other goals, including prestige, reaching new audiences, nourishing internal talent, and inventing exciting new communication forms lead to valuable forms of impact that we’ve seen funders actively seeking.
As is the case for many documentary campaigns, collaboration also plays an important role. Interactive producers from The Guardian, Washington Post, FRONTLINE, POV and others are “forging unprecedented creative partnerships with other media organizations. And they are doing this in ways that redefine their traditional relationships to readers and viewers, taking creative advantage of the very conditions that so threaten today’s status quo while inventing new forms of journalistic storytelling.”
Of course, traditional goals of quality and social relevance still apply. “We believe that as journalism continues its inexorable transformation, this latest round of challenges can reinforce its role as ‘truth-teller, sense-maker, explainer’ as one Tow report put it, and can redefine its relationship with the public and with civic-minded organizations.”
But as seems to be the case again and again when investigating methods for assessing the impact of public media, there is no one impact formula.
“Questions of budget inevitably bring with them issues of cost-effectiveness. …this, too, is complicated by the very different values entailed in interactive and participatory projects. In some cases, familiar advertising metrics based on gross exposure (CPI or the cost per impression; CPM or cost per thousand) matter most. In others, the values are more difficult to quantify: learning by experimenting, with new formats and production pipelines; status, with prize-winning innovations; exploring partnerships with kindred organizations in other parts of the media ecosystem; or, spinning out new tools and content management systems.”
Mapping emerging affordances
Part of what makes tracking impact complicated in such settings is the wide array of new ways that audiences can connect with platforms and content. The report sketches several of these new possibilities. For example:

  • Mobile platforms offer more opportunities for visual content, interaction, more intuitive interfaces, and new content management systems.
  • Collaborative and participatory projects—including those which leverage widely used social platforms such as YouTube and Twitter—bring users more deeply into the reporting process and encourage them to take ownership of a project and help to amplify it more widely.
  • Immersive projects such as virtual reality and 3D films allow users to exercise agency by choosing where to look and how to navigate narratives, “making stories more present, and thus more effective.”
  • Projects using citizen science methods and sensors tap into the rising popularity of gathering “big data” in journalism and also offer the opportunity for “increasingly individuated” story experiences that can illuminate complex, dynamic systems.

Taken together, these affordances allow for deeper “engagement”— a term nearly as knotty as “impact,” the authors suggest:

‘Engagement’ has fast replaced ‘ exposure’ and ‘unit sales’ as the desideratum of the digital information economy. But its meanings are many, as are strategies for achieving and measuring it. Engagement is a metric of value that correlates to interest and influence, both of which are significant concerns to the advertisers and non-profit foundations that support most commercial and non-commercial news organizations. At a moment of general uncertainty in established journalism and entertainment industries, the metrics of value are a particularly fraught topic. They matter because basic survival requires most organizations to play to the metric, shaping their work in ways that maximize the results they prioritize most, be those numbers of viewers or depth of engagement.

There is also the danger of “engagement” being decoupled from social outcomes, and being dismissed as merely “pandering to the market.”

Public interest and influence matter crucially in settings rich with alternatives. But once reduced to a metric, these goals predictably take second place to the mechanics of their measurement. Journalism and documentary are thus in a precarious position, at once vital for an informed citizenry and vulnerable to the fast-moving valuation of the digital marketplace and its deforming pressures. Practitioners in both fields must be careful to keep the larger goals in sight

Despite these difficulties, the authors conclude,  tracking impact remains an important priority for this volatile field — especially in the longer term, given that we don’t yet understand the consequences of such projects down the line.
In the coming months, we’ll continue to dig into methods for funders and producers to understand how best to evaluate investments in interactive projects. Stay tuned.

About the Author
Jessica Clark

Jessica Clark

Research Consultant

Jessica is a research consultant for Media Impact Funders, and the founder and director of media production/strategy firm Dot Connector Studio. She is also currently a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project. Previously, she served as the media strategist for AIR’s groundbreaking Localore project, the director of the Future of Public Media project at American University’s Center for Media and Social Impact, and a Knight Media Policy Fellow at D.C.-based think tank the New America Foundation. Over the past decade, she has led research and convenings with high-profile universities and national media networks, including NPR, PBS, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, MIT, and USC’s Annenberg School for Communication. She is the co-author of Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media (The New Press, 2010), and a longtime independent journalist.