How your decisions shape your story

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The stories we tell are always the result of a chain of decisions we make.

Typically, those decisions are things like: what topic to cover, who to interview, what questions to ask, what information to include, and how to edit the story.

The same is very much true in the practice of data journalism. You need to choose what story you’re telling, what data to show, where to find it, how to display it, and so on. This concept was reinforced for me last year during some training with data visualisation specialist Andy Kirk, who showed us this slide:

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It’s a fantastic reminder that the decisions we make all the way through the storytelling process have an impact on the finished product: make enough good decisions and you’ll have a good story. (And vice versa of course.)

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Great stories #1: Andrew Davies

What’s the most powerful or compelling story you’ve read/watched/listened to recently?

That’s the question we put to Andrew Davies, RN’s social media and distribution editor. Here’s what he said:

“My RN colleague Ann Jones recently made a two-part series (Part 1 and Part II) on the sinking of the Blythe Star off the south-west coast of Tasmania. All ten crew members got out alive but not all of them would survive.

“I’d never heard about this story before but the interviews with some of the survivors, use of archival audio and music really made this such an extraordinary series.  To begin both episodes Ann used quotes that hooked me in immediately. Listening to both episodes really reminded me just how powerful audio can be.

“Also… I loved this NYT story profiling some of their top commenters. In an era when we hear so much negativity about ‘below the line’ comments it was fantastic to read about the people behind comments –  not to mention why they choose to comment.”

This is the first post in an ongoing series where people share great stories.

What we’ve been reading

Here’s a snapshot of what we’ve been reading lately…

Don’t underestimate the audience

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In a world of short attention spans, one of the challenges media organisations face is trying to engage digital audiences for longer. (You’re still with me, right?)

This is particularly important because visitors who spend longer on a site are more likely to come back.

Last week, ABC political reporter Julie Doyle wrote a story revealing that 10 per cent of teaching students are failing a literacy and numeracy test. We immediately saw an opportunity to let the public try answering the questions themselves.

We got our hands on some sample test questions and I started putting it together using our quiz builder. The test required people to read a 560-word passage of text about “re-inventing traditional schooling” and then answer a series of questions. As I prepared the quiz, I felt like we were asking a lot of our audience: this was a long chunk of text and the writing was particularly turgid.

Despite some hesitation, I pressed ahead – but switched the order so there were a couple of simpler, shorter questions first.

As it turned out, I’d underestimated our audience. The quiz was a hit: it garnered more than 100,000 pageviews and average time on site was extremely long by digital standards: 6min 48sec on desktop and 6min 35sec on mobile. The story garnered more than 700,000 engaged minutes, by far the most of any article that week.

On reflection, I think the critical factor explaining why people were willing to invest that extra time is because the quiz offered a clear payoff: feel smarter than your teacher.

Making sure there’s a clear reward is critical to garnering this kind of engagement. It’s a similar concept to Vote Compass: people are only willing to spend time answering 30 questions about policy because they know the tool will deliver them something valuable at the end.

(Give me the tl;dr version.)

This post was adapted from an email sent to ABC staff about digital storytelling.