Bridging Storytelling and Production

Let’s be clear: there’s not just one way to structure a story –every story unfolds differently. But there’s a common thread in effective visual journalism. Great producers, like New York Times Senior producer Nancy Donaldson, don’t let their stories unfold randomly; structuring with purpose is key.

Donaldson approaches each story with two questions: What is the story you want to tell? And what is the best way to tell it? Answering these two questions, she says, will help structure your piece.

Donaldson helped launch the NYT documentary “Hers to Lose,” an inside look at Christine Quinn’s bid for mayor. She developed the show “Science Take,” and recently won the first ever World Press Photo award in multimedia for “A Year At War.”

Donaldson shared some tips with Columbia Visuals for strengthening multimedia work.

Nancy Donaldson

Nancy Donaldson:
“I tend to favor the more emotionally driven and intimate stories.”

Play to the strengths of each medium to create a seamless experience for users. “We approach each project looking at the story first, and then decide the medium. That decision is made in the beginning.”

 Include the elements of great storytelling:

  • A strong character- someone who can tell their story
  • Open access– the ability to spend time with somebody
  • Narrative tension– action unfolding over time

Marry production with storytelling. “I think the biggest challenge is creating work with a high production value, and a surprising story that people haven’t told.  Things will trend in the news and people sort of hold on to that. It’s very crucial to find new ideas, or a really fresh perspective.”

Avoid the common mistakes visual journalists make:

  • Mimicking other journalists. “I think a lot of visual journalists who are starting out look to others for inspiration, which I think is important, but it’s also crucial that people develop their own voice and own style. You want to, especially on the web, find way to innovate, create your own narrative voice in the work that you’re doing.”
  • Following a formula. “A lot of people try to follow a formula of ‘Hi, my name is–“ and then you go on the journey. It feels outdated.”
  • Relying on narration. “A lot of the stuff that’s narrated, people hit you right out of the gate with what the story is about. Here’s this person, she does this, and that’s the end. I think creating some sort of mystery and intrigue is important, and a sophistication that people seem to develop over time.”

Screenshots captured from Donaldson’s work at the New York Times. 

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