Teaching Examples

Mary Ellen’s Will: A multimedia critique
August 23, 2006, 12:14 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

There’s a lot to be said about how well the Dallas Morning News handled this big investigative story on the Web. While the entry page could be a bit more attractive (hasn’t anyone heard that headlines in bigger type sizes draw the reader’s eye and help her make sense out of the information?) — I like it very much that: (1) all the pieces of the package are easily available from one page; and (2) each piece has enough explanation so that I know what I will get if I click it.

It’s great that the top box, “About This Series,” gives us the central idea of why this story is important: “… one in five elderly Americans will be victims of some form of financial exploitation, losing at least a third of their assets.”

Mary Ellen's Will videos

I went straight to the multimedia piece, of course. I didn’t like the intro much. It took more than a minute to begin playing (on a DSL connection), and the voiceover really put me off. In my opinion, those authoritative announcer voices are not effective online. They work better in the living room, when the TV set is 10 feet away from us. I also found the piano to be hokey.

The best stuff is under the heading “Video” — even though only one of the four videos was produced by the journalists. The other three are evidence. Chilling, heartbreaking evidence.

Here’s the power of online: You can watch these videos up close, in private, without any voiceover, without any interruptions, without an lead-in from an announcer. You can see the evidence yourself. You can experience it.

The “Characters” section is useful. I think sometimes we don’t realize how much we can help the readers by providing this kind of compact information on one screen, with simple rollovers. It makes the story so much clearer.

The “Scrapbook” section is also helpful in allowing us to understand the owner of the house at the center of the story. The captions really add value here.

The credits kept popping up when I did not want them to. This provides a good argument for making credits appear ONLY when the users clicks — NOT when they merely roll over.

Finally, the “Source Box” section. It’s good information to include here, but visually, it’s barely usable. Why? Long lines of text combined with very little line spacing (what we used to call “leading”). For the sake of legibility, the longer the line length, the larger the type should be. The designer’s rule of thumb is 39 to 52 characters per line (26 x 1.5 to 26 x 2). These lines average 100 characters in length, so they’re not very legible.

I would have watched a video of this reporter talking about this story. It must have been terribly challenging to investigate and tell it.

As for the rest of the package, the designer made good decisions about use of photos, subheadings, and sourcing (the sourcing is beautiful!). I think for most people who did not read this in the newspaper, if they want to read all this text, printing it will be a good option. The format used should work fine for printing, and it’s also readable online.

The one big flaw I see is DATES. At the top of each story segment, it should clearly give the date of the original publication, as well as the page number (in the print newspaper) and — hey, while we’re at it — the NAME of the publication.

I find too many newspaper articles on the Web that give me no clue when they were published. The Web has a long life. It ain’t fishwrap.

Reporter and writer: Lee Hancock. Multimedia by Mindy Leichter. Multimedia editor: Karen Dee Davis. Project editor: Mark Miller.

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