Discussions on long-form journalism are quite often focused on large walls of text published on magazine-styled websites. And while there is no doubt that there is still a place for this type of storytelling, NZME has just launched a major long-form editorial project that leads with social and digital elements.
Over the last few weeks, a small contingent of the New Zealand Herald editorial team has taken a roadtrip across the nation to find out what it means to be a Kiwi in the modern context as part of a new editorial series called ‘Who we are’.
“It’s very much designed to take the pulse of the nation,” says the Herald’s morning editor Chris Reed.
The motivation for the project was born out of the debate sparked during the flag referendum, which ultimately resulted in New Zealand retaining its existing banner.
“The whole process prompted unprecedented debate about who we are and where we’re going and where we sit on the world stage, so we thought we’d investigate by going to every nook and cranny of New Zealand to talk to everyday Kiwis about what they thought.”
This is, of course, not the first time the NZ Herald team has undertaken a road trip to find out what Kiwis thought about a topic. As recently as 2013, the NZ Herald conducted a road trip to commemorate the publication’s 150th anniversary, and before that, around a decade ago, journalists were commissioned to do a grunty editorial piece on what it meant to be a Kiwi.
The difference this time, says Reed, is that the project is extending well beyond text.
“Long-form journalism in the past would’ve just been loads of words, but this is going to put the audience in the middle of the story,” he says.
He explains that previously the research would’ve occurred in the background, and the final result would’ve been limited to the pieces that could be squeezed onto the page.
The freedom of digital when combined with rapid advances in streaming technology has allowed NZME to expand the coverage through video and interactive storytelling.
“We’re going to have two streams of video content that run concurrently,” says Reed.
“One is going to be very focused on on-the-road travelogues and meeting quirky people. That will be really tight and punchy, and the second stream will be analysis of the themes that unite and sometimes divide us. That’s going to be a bit more serious and have a bit more depth to it. We’re going to make short documentaries of around three or four minutes long.”
Reed makes the point that those shorter documentaries are essentially a modern way of presenting long-form journalism.
“These mini documentaries are possibly even more relevant to audiences [than text],” he says.
This content will roll out intermittently on a specially created hub on the Herald, eventually concluding with a longer, gruntier piece at the end of the series.
“We’re going to hopefully answer the question of who we are, or at least who we think we are, [in the final piece]. That final story is going to feature an interactive, lots of video content and a map that charts the journey we took through the course of the project.”
In addition to generating audience interest, the project has also attracted the attention of Spark, which is providing commercial support.
“It remains an editorial project, but Spark is supporting it, which is great.”
Keeping Kiwis interested in the project is, however, a challenge in itself. And the responsibility in this regard has been passed over to NZME general manager of social media Lauren Hopwood and her team.
Last week on Friday, in anticipation of this week’s rollout, the NZME social media team launched #NZin1Word to get Kiwis interested in the topic.
The hashtag quickly shot into the top trending topics in New Zealand, and Hopwood says it provided a good tie-in to the work done on the roadtrip, which saw journalists ask Kiwis to share their thoughts on a chalkboard.
— nzherald (@nzherald) July 20, 2016
Some of the pictures taken of Kiwis with their chalkboards appeared among the social media posts throughout the weekend.
While social media can be a toxic environment, Hopwood says she isn’t worried about a bit of negativity.
“We know that when people use the hashtag, not everything they say is going to be completely positive and that’s fine too,” Hopwood says.
“It’s really going to give us a barometer of how people feel which gives us the opportunity to explore any common themes that emerge from what people are saying on social and create additional editorial pieces that respond directly to those sentiments.”
In some ways, the negativity is almost necessary because it gives the journalists an entry point to investigate some of the more divisive topics plaguing Kiwi society.
The layered approach used in this instance isn’t necessarily going to be applicable in every instance; different stories necessitate different treatments. But what this shows is that media companies are increasingly taking an experimental approach to their storytelling, and this carries the promise of telling broader and more in-depth stories in a way that actually resonates with how people are consuming media.
While long, beautifully written, magazine-styled pieces aren’t going to disappear from the internet anytime soon, journalists now have more than one way to go about telling those big stories that matter. And the way we choose to tell them might be just as important as what those stories are.