The second prize of the 2014 World Press Photo Multimedia Awards for interactive documentary went to The Guardian’s NSA Files: Decoded. To understand how the documentary took form, we spoke to Gabriel Dance, the lead interactive editor on the project. Dance is currently the managing editor for the Marshall Project, a non-profit investigative journalism startup focusing on crime and punishment in the U.S., previously he was the interactive editor for The Guardian in New York City, and before that he was at The New York Times.

Columbia Visuals: How do you start a project of this scale, especially one that’s not inherently visual?

Gabriel Dance: We start where I would assume a reporter starts, which is by asking ourselves, “What questions do we want to answer?”

The NSA:Decoded project was interesting because the goal of it was to explain a subject that was very complicated both legally and technically. Our goal was to answer the question, “Why does it matter to me if I’m not doing anything wrong?” and to bring immediacy to the context of it, so that readers could understand the different ways in which they were being surveilled, or were potentially being surveilled.

We started with an outline with the questions we wanted to answer for the reader, and from that outline we started to pull out interactive elements, visual elements, text, charts and maps. So for example, when we were talking about how many direct connections you have to somebody that the NSA is already interested in, it was really natural to say, “Why don’t we create a interactive that syncs up with their Facebook account and tells them, based on their Facebook friends, just exactly how many people they are most likely connected to by three hops? That could be an interactive element.”

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CV: How did you come up with the video format that you used?

GD: What we ended up doing, instead of just using copy from interviews, was using video. We realized that it brought more immediacy to the project if we had quotes actually spoken by the sources, directly into the camera.

I met with Bob Sacha and I told him how I wanted the interviews to be immediate, include different themes, and how the interview clips would be presented, which was on white and would play automatically. It was Bob’s idea in fact, that we do something like the Errol Morris technique on the cheap, which is to say we sat directly behind our camera and like an inch above it, and then interviewed them so it looked like they were speaking directly into the camera. 

Green screen setup for videos of NSA Files: Decoded / Courtesy of Gabriel Dance

Green screen setup for videos of NSA Files: Decoded / Courtesy of Gabriel Dance

CV: How did you conceptualize the design and aesthetics of the project?

GD: Initially, we thought that we were going to have a much longer story to pair with it, and it was going to be more similar to some of the other Snow Fall-esque projects you’ve seen, where the copy is the dominant element and then the interactive elements either floated along the side or were occasionally in the actual copy. We had designed it a little bit along those lines and then about halfway through we realized that the videos and the interactive elements were really fascinating and good, so we decided to restructure it in a way that treated every element as necessary to the storytelling. Everything works in concert with the rest of the elements.

Once we made that decision, we shifted the design and the overall user experience pretty radically to bring the videos inline, to have them automatically play when they reached the hot spot in the middle of the screen, which we hadn’t really seen before. We integrated elements into the copy with charts and graphics. You can roll over words in the copy and they will affect the charts and graphics. When that started coming together it was a really critical point because that’s when we switched from being copy-centric to medium-agnostic. But holistically, we designed it from the get-go to have all the charts and graphs and every single element have a very uniform look.

Original Mockup for the NSA FIles:Decoded / Courtesy of Gabriel Dance

Original Mockup for the NSA FIles:Decoded / Courtesy of Gabriel Dance

CV: What was the audience response like? Did this format keep the readers engaged?

GD: I do think that it resonated with the audience, for a couple of reasons. One is that it was very heavily trafficked, and for the people who engaged with it. For people who stayed over one minute, the average duration was ten minutes, which is really, really high engagement. People who stay over a minute you assume are engaged, and for them to stay ten minutes is pretty astounding. It was also astonishing how far down the page people got, because it was a very long page.

CV: The project has won many prestigious awards, has that made an impact on how you view the project now?

GD: I hesitate to take a lot of credit with awards, but I do think that it’s interesting that this project won a gold medal at the SND35 Design Awards, which is a design award. It won a gold medal at the Malofiej Awards, which is an infographic award. It won best practices for the Webbies, which is like a user experience award, and then it won both a Pulitzer and an Emmy, which are journalism awards.

The fact that it won awards in contests that have very different winners and are judging on different criteria I think really spoke to it resonating with a broad audience. I think that the World Press Photo is an interesting one. We didn’t have amazing videography, but I think it aligned with their idea of interactive documentary- this truly resonates as a format- and I think that’s part of what was recognized as a form of interactive documentary storytelling that was particularly effective. 

CV: Can you talk about the level of collaboration a project like this requires?

GD: It was a wholly collaborative effort, starting with Ewen MacAskill, the lead reporter who went to Hong Kong, who received the documents and broke most of these stories. It really starts with having a reporter who has enough confidence and is comfortable enough to relinquish a little bit of control, from saying, “This is going to be a written, true story with other elements,” to saying, “This is going to be a wholly medium-agnostic piece of reporting.”

Then it was really close work with Feilding Cage, the main producer and developer, and Greg Chen, the main designer.  All three of us worked together for about a month just setting up the frame work, not knowing what content would fill it, but knowing types of content.

A little after we started the project, Kenan Davis, Kenton Powell and Nadia Popovich became involved, and were able to do individual interactive elements in a way that goes with the flow of the story and with the design style we had set forth.  I think that in current-day newsrooms on stories like this, certainly on interactive or digital presentations, collaboration is fundamental and having people who are good at collaborating is nearly as important- if not more- than having people who are technically advanced.

CV: What advice do you have for aspiring journalists?

GD: They have to be ready to work collaboratively, which is a much harder skill than you might think. It requires humility as well as flexibility. Second is to be a good reporter. I think fundamentally, the best reporters do the best work. You can’t tell a crappy story and make it amazing just by having incredible charts or maps; it needs to be fundamentally solid reporting. Also, become very good at least one thing- if that’s reporting, or if that’s videography, or whatever.

We did have specialists; Feilding is a wonderful interactive developer, Greg is an amazing branding illustrating designer, Kenan and Ken were both interactive people, Ewan is a reporter at the highest level. Everybody had one strength that they really brought to the team, and then everybody also had the strengths of being collaborative and great teammates.

This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity and length.

You can see NSA Files: Decoded during the free exhibition hosted by the Brown Institute from January 19- February 6, 4pm-8pm Monday through Friday. More information on the World Press Photo Multimedia exhibition can be found here.

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