Using photos to show the story

A common refrain in journalism schools is “show don’t tell.” It means to make your writing sufficiently descriptive that readers can visualize what you’re talking about. Instead of writing that the “laptop looked old,” you should write “The laptop bore the logo of a long deceased company; the keys were sticky with years of donut crumbs and oil from fingers. The casing bore a tinge of yellow.”

Technology gives us an easier way to show: pictures. Unfortunately, most newspaper sites haven’t mastered this. They’re still stuck in a print mindset where the written word is king and photos are expensive window dressing. They edit photos for the one or two spaces they have in the paper.

Consider this story about the North American Sandsculpting Championship in Virginia Beach. It’s a story that’s screaming for pictures. The photographer who shot that story very likely shot dozens of pictures. They were edited down to the two that are shown.

In print, where you only have so much space and color costs money, this makes perfect sense. Online it doesn’t. Every photo that adds to that story should be online. (Except photos with serious exposure problems, nearly identical photos, etc.) Compare the two photos that are online with the selection of pictures I took at the event.

The two photos from the The Virginian-Pilot are certainly better than any of mine; but mine do a better job of giving users the flavor of walking down the beach and seeing the sculptures. My photos are also geotagged, making them easy to search for on maps. (This can be done by carrying a $150 GPS around while shooting.)

Slideshows are extremely popular among readers. They are also an easy way to tell the story better and get a lot of extra page views. Especially when the people who are in the pictures send the link around.

Pictures are especially critical for stories like restaurant reviews and travel pieces. These are visceral experiences where images can be critical to the reader’s decision and understanding. Compare these pictures from a restaurant opening with what you’re used to seeing on newspaper sites. Even mundane pictures like this menu add to the story.

About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is Senior Director of product at Amazon (Audible). Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He tweets at @rakeshlobster.
This entry was posted in flickr, journalism, media, newspapers, photography. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Using photos to show the story

  1. Mark says:

    Spot on, Rocky. Pictures are worth 1,000 words, etc. Can you imagine trying to describe one of these sand sculptures in words? One of the new forms of storytelling that journalists need to master (and we’re nowhere near yet) is picking the best medium in which to tell the story. Words aren’t the only choice anymore. It might be photos, audio, video or even an interactive widget (or some combination of all of the above)–whatever can maximize the reader/viewer’s understanding of what the journalist is trying to convey.

  2. There is definitely a lot of experimentation going on. Unfortunately for the newspaper industry, most of it is by other people. Engadget and some of the other blogs have done a great job of using various tools to tell the story.

    Some of the newspaper experiments I’ve seen are lackluster. I’ve seen videos where it’s effectively the reporter reading the story to me. It’s not additive, it’s repetitive.

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