How to Get an ‘Edge’ Online

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By: Miki Johnson

How do you tell the story of Virginia’s famous Heritage Music Trail without sound? If you’re a newspaper that has embraced multimedia storytelling as completely as The Roanoke Times has, you don’t have to.

Clicking your way through its “Going Down the Crooked Road” Web presentation, you’ll come upon demonstrations of how different instruments sound with explanations of their roles in a band. Or you can fiddle with volume controls for individual instruments while a song plays. You can also scroll through photo galleries of legendary bluegrass players or listen to songs by local musicians.

“Crooked Road” was one of three presentations on Roanoke.com that garnered 2006 Digital Edge awards for multimedia storytelling from the Newspaper Association of America in the 50,001 to 99,999 circulation category (the Times’ weekday circ is 93,471). All three winning entries elaborated on big print stories, drawing readers to the Web site with exclusive content and offering interactive gems.

The other winners of multimedia “Edgies” reiterate the importance of these multimedia forms, and are quick to explain the tricks to achieving them.

“On big projects, we’ve set the expectation that it will combine print and online components in creative and compelling ways,” explains Times Editor Mike Riley. “It’s a large and talented cast … the idea is to get the right hands and talents involved from the start.”

Those “hands” on “Crooked Road” included features writer Ralph Berrier Jr., who grew up with “mountain music” and who wrote the series’ six stories about towns along the trail. Also instrumental was Seth Gitner, a still photographer for the Times who taught himself to use video equipment and Web software and was appointed multimedia editor more than a year ago. The team was rounded out with photographer and mountain music initiate Kyle Green, who contributed more than 40 photos for the project.

In march, the series also won the Roanoke Times a National Journalism Award from Scripps, which netted the newspaper $10,000 and a trophy.

“I think everyone is becoming more aware of the power and potential of multimedia, which is something we want to integrate into our everyday operation and not only in large projects,” Riley says. “We moved our online team into the newsroom more than a year ago, and what a difference it has made.”

Convergence is also top priority at The Providence (R.I.) Journal, where weekly meetings bring together newsroom and online staff to discuss upcoming multimedia projects. Projo.com won a multimedia Edgie in the 100,000 to 249,999 category for its “Saving Block Island” and “Classic Cars.”

“I’m really not quite sure what part of the building the plaque should be in,” insists Tom Heslin, managing editor for new media. He literally moves their online awards, including an APME convergence award and an EPpy, to different areas of the building occasionally.

Like “Crooked Road,” the Block Island bloc features audio slideshows, video, and interactive tidbits, this time about the man who spearheaded eventually successful efforts to spare picturesque Block Island’s more scenic parts from outside developers.

Again, a writer from the paper with years of expertise ? environment writer Peter B. Lord ? developed the story and photographer John Freidah came on board to create slideshows of the island in all four seasons. In the works for more than a year, the project truly went multimedia when the paper renewed its emphasis on Web development and Heslin was assigned to his new media position.

Also right out of the gates, newsroom staffer Tom Farrgher steered The Boston Globe’s Edgie-award-winning package on Emily Crockett, a blind Harvard freshman learning to navigate her strange new world, toward multimedia. Teresa Hanafin, editor of Boston.com, says the project was one of the first where the online team was brought on so early, and online producer Scott LaPierre was given unprecedented access to the subjects, even visiting Crockett on his own to record the sound of her digital Web-page reader.

Hanafin says Boston.com, a New York Times Co. property that operates separately from the Globe, has put the power of Web content creation directly in news staffers’ hands. Reporters have received instruction on multimedia pioneer Joe Weiss’ Soundslides program, which allows them to insert audio over slideshows without having to know Flash software.

“There is no involvement by Boston.com producers until they send it to us and we publish it,” Hanafin explains. This and other initiatives such as Flash classes for editorial designers and Web-savvy liaisons in newsroom departments, relieves the burden on Boston.com staff while involving reporters more directly in multimedia creation. “The newsroom is excited ? it’s a way for them to participate rather than just coming up with the idea,” Hanafin says. “It’s still journalism, but they’re exercising some multimedia muscles they didn’t even know they had.”

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