Four months after a tornado tore through Joplin, Missouri, Esquire magazine published a story describing the tragedy through those who lived it. It was a gripping tale of the May 2011 twister, but one told in a traditional way: through printed narrative.
In Northeastern’s new “StoryLab” course—a partnership between Esquire and the School of Journalism’s Media Innovation program—students reimagined the story as an interactive website. They separated the narrative into shorter stories, one for each of eight featured survivors. Readers can click on whichever survival tale interests them, then view personal photos and videos that bring the written words to life.
“There will always be a need to tell a story, but there are now many different ways to tell it,” says Stephen Daly, AS’88, MA’17, a StoryLab student.
StoryLab’s purpose is to envision the future of print journalism at a time when staffs and circulation numbers are shrinking at magazines and newspapers. Students explore how to engage readers who increasingly digest news on smartphones and laptops.
The class has the feel of a startup, with interdisciplinary teams of designers, videographers, writers, and coders experimenting with ideas as they tackle a semester-long project to retell already published Esquire stories.
“The idea was to take these iconic magazine stories and reimagine how they might be presented in the digital age,” says journalism professor Jeff Howe, who leads the Media Innovation program and created StoryLab.
Although Northeastern professors teach the class, Esquire writers and independent journalists regularly visit in person or via Skype. The magazine benefits from the partnership because the staff learns fresh storytelling possibilities from the next generation of journalists.
“It’s a way of building a meaningful relationship between current industry practices and emerging forms,” says David Tamés, a documentary filmmaker who co-teaches the course. “It’s an opportunity to rethink all of the assumptions we make when we create a story.”
Sidebar: One Story Told Three Ways
In the fall of 2014, the first StoryLab class reinvented an Esquire story by Luke Dittrich, who walked the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border to gain a better understanding of the politically complex border region.
One team created a video game that lets users control the next steps on Dittrich’s adventure. For example, users decide where to pitch a tent, whether to talk to border guards, and whether to pause at landscape features like a mountain range.
Another team embedded the text of Dittrich’s story amid photographs of the eerie desert spaces he encountered. The landscape shifts as the reader scrolls through it, conveying the vastness of the border region.
A third team created an interactive map of the border. As readers click on distinct geographic locations, the map reveals more photos and narratives of Dittrich’s journey.