Multimedia in Journalism: An Interview with the Times’ Amy Harmon

In an ever evolving media landscape, it can be challenging to figure out how to present multimedia in a graceful way. And while there can be a lot of lamenting over new media eclipsing more traditional forms of journalism, it can also be used to enhance the time-honored forms of storytelling. This was certainly the case for the New York Times journalist Amy Harmon’s recent piece “Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World.” Harmon, a Pulitzer Prize winner, followed a young man with autism named Justin Canha for a year. She wrote an engaging narrative, delving into the complexities and challenges that Canha, a budding animator/illustrator, faced as he made his way into adulthood.

The Times added another dimension to Harmon’s already captivating account with multimedia “quick links.” These links not only showed Canha’s quirks through video and his talent for drawing, but provided an important facet to understanding his character and experience. It is the perfect example of how multimedia can be used to complement a more traditional piece, the powers of print, photo and video woven into one experience. I spoke to Harmon about the piece, which drew attention from journalists and Silicon Valley types alike.

MZ: How did the idea of integrating all that multimedia into a narrative piece come to be? Was this the first time the Times tried anything like it?

AH: The Times uses multimedia to tell stories all the time, we even won an Emmy for one cool approach to this recently. But what I think is so innovative about the “quick links” that my colleague Josh Williams invented for the autism story is precisely the integration that you are asking about. In an immersion-narrative like this one, the whole point for me, as the writer, is to get readers hooked enough to keep reading to the end. I struggled for weeks, over many drafts, to do that with this one. I hoped they would want to know: will Justin manage to secure a place for himself in the world beyond high school? Will he find a job that uses his artistic talent? Will he remain friendless? The last thing I wanted was to add multimedia distractions, no matter how whizzy. So to me, the beauty of the quick links is that they don’t take you away from the story. They don’t open a new tab from which you may never return, they don’t introduce a dimension of plot or character that is tangential to my compulsively-labored-over text. But they DO bring the story to life in a visceral way that my words do not, and perhaps never could, even if I had longer to perfect them, or was a more gifted writer.

As to how the idea came about: it grew out of the editing process, pretty late in the game. This was not a case where we sat down ahead of time and tried to conceive of a new way to convey information. But one thing we had done, which is pretty standard now, is produce a short video that would accompany the story on our Web site. And it was when Glenn Kramon, the paper’s enterprise editor, saw the video that he asked whether it would be possible for readers to see and hear Justin as they read the article online. The video itself was great, we all loved how the producers had told Justin’s story. But it was also obvious that seeing and hearing Justin, even in just the raw footage, Glenn was able to grasp the nature of his autism with a clarity that he had never had in reading my written descriptions. And he didn’t want readers to have to watch the stand-alone, seven-minute video to have that experience. He wanted it sprinkled into the story. It seemed obvious once he said it, but since none of us had ever seen anything like that, I was sort of doubtful that it could be done, at least in time for my story to run.

At our next meeting, though, Andrew DeVigal, who heads the multimedia team, came with Josh Williams, a member of his staff. Josh instantly grasped what we wanted, and it was only a couple of days later that he showed us the first iteration of the links. Josh had been involved in developing much fancier stuff, and he didn’t think this was such a big deal. But I did. Maybe because it is still essentially a familiar format, rather than a completely new one, I felt like I could work within it, and it gave me this totally new way to make the story better.

MZ: Could you describe the process of gathering and putting together all the multimedia elements? What were some of the challenges?

AH: At first we were just going to use four or five links in the story, but once we had the tool, I kept finding more places where I thought it could be useful, so I think we ended up with something like fourteen of them.

A lot of credit goes to Patrick Farrell, who pored over the hours of video to find short clips that would illustrate the aspects of the story that we wanted to highlight in this way: how Justin talked, how quickly he sketched the tiny Disney characters in his notebook, etc. And we were lucky that Kassie Bracken, who shot the video, had been able to get such great fly-on-the-wall footage so that we had a lot to choose from. Justin’s parents had saved a lot of his early artwork, so it was a matter of getting them to scan and email it. In one case, I had recorded audio of a conversation Justin had with his friend Paloma, and we were able to create a very short slide show with that to give readers a better sense of what they were like together.

One of the challenges for me was to make sure that we placed the links in such a way that they would punctuate, rather than interrupt the story – and also so that they would make sense in the context of the words. My editor, Barbara Graustark, and I read through the story many times clicking all the links, trying to decide, for instance, would it be better to hear Justin singing “When You Wish Upon A Star” in the middle of the passage about how Pinocchio was his favorite movie, or at the end? It was really a new way of writing and editing.

MZ: How have the readers reacted to the multimedia?

AH: One of the first reactions I heard from was in a comment on my Facebook page from Stewart Alsop, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and technology pundit. He wrote that the “way the video and artwork is integrated is the way this stuff should have been done since the beginning,’’ which I felt meant a lot coming from him.

Interestingly, several readers told me they did not click on the links the first time through, because they didn’t know what would happen and wanted to keep reading the story. I think readers have been trained to believe a link will take them away from the story, to transport them to some other kind of experience. But here is the reaction of one blogger who did click.

MZ: We’re so used to thinking about multimedia as an end in itself, how do you think multimedia can serve long-form journalism? Do you think there are any downsides?

Every time I write a narrative piece like this, I struggle — to build suspense, to show (not tell) my themes, to write concise scenes, to foreshadow the denouement so that it all makes sense at the end. I’ve barely figured out how to do all that with words (with varying degrees of success). So the idea of wrapping in video and pictures and sound is sort of daunting. There’s going to be a learning curve and (attention, editors) it’s going to take longer, at least at first. But the upside of bringing readers closer to the story, of making the experience even more immersive by including those elements, seems to me to far eclipse any downside.

It’s sort of a defensive trope among narrative journalists in the age of Twitter to talk about how “humans hard-wired for stories,” so there will always be a market for this stuff we like to do. (“People are reading long-form on their phones!’’)  I am the first to argue that to my editors when I’m asking for the time and space to do these stories, and I do think it’s true. But I also think people are more impatient, more easily distracted, and that we have to work harder to keep their attention. That’s why it’s kind of exciting that we have these new tools to do it. Working with the multimedia in this story was the first time I felt like I was part of the Times’ digital newsroom, not just supplying it with copy. The trick, I think, is using the tools in the service of the story, to keep readers reading — and watching and looking and listening.

Amy Harmon is a Pulitzer Prize-winning National correspondent for The New York Times who covers the impact of science and technology on American life.