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.