‘Segregation Now’ combines traditional reporting with multimedia elements to tell complete story

ProPublica‘s “Segregation Now: The Resegregation of America’s Schools” is a feat in both reporting and multimedia storytelling. This piece is part of an ongoing investigation examining segregation in America. The series is “investigating America’s racial divide in education, housing and beyond,” ProPublica writes.

There are actually two versions of this particular piece, one for people who want to read the narrative without extra elements – and one for people who want to embrace the extra information provided via multimedia components.

Read the plain text version here. The multimedia story is available here.

Through the lens of one particular town, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the story looks at America’s resegregated schools. “In Tuscaloosa today, nearly one in three black students attends a school that looks as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened,” author Nikole Hannah-Jones writes. “Tuscaloosa’s school resegregation—among the most extensive in the country—is a story of city financial interests, secret meetings, and angry public votes.”

At the time the story was published, 53 percent of the South’s black students attended schools where nine out of 10 students were racial minorities. “Segregation Now” tells this story through three generations of the Dent family. “The Dent family, from grandfather to granddaughter, has lived out integration’s fleeting wonder,” Hannah-Jones explains.

In many ways this news feature is similar to a traditional newspaper in-depth report. It relies on detailed fact-finding, identifying sources and getting people to share their stories. However, the ProPublica team utilized alternative storytelling formats and multimedia elements to advance the piece.

Here are some of the techniques that make this piece so interesting and readable – and some missing elements that could’ve aided the storytellers:

Linking/chunking

Here is one of the few areas of the piece I find problematic. The text-only version of “Segregation Now” contains no links and only three subheads, the name of each Dent, in a nearly 10,000-word story. I understand the desire to have a more simplistic version of the piece that’s easier for people to read. (This way people who resent multimedia components – or who are reading on the go – can still access the text.) However, there’s no reason not to include inline links to court decisions or past stories about the issue.

Linking is a simple – but versatile tool. “By using it properly, journalists can offer readers far more than what they can gather and process through their efforts,” the Interscholastic Online News Network explains.

More text breaks via chunking would also have served the story well. These elements would make processing the story easier.

Meanwhile, the multimedia version harnesses the benefits of chunking. Primarily, the storytellers used bold breakout text throughout the narration.

The screen shot below is an example. This change in text helps draw the reader away from the length of the story. It makes the piece seem easier to read. It also allows important facts to stand out by making them more prominent.

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Chunking creates more manageable pieces for readers. “Your goal should be to create chunks of information that can stand on their own, but that also fit within the larger context of your website,” Kivi Leroux Miller explains on the Nonprofit Communications Blog. “Segregation Now” does exactly this.

Alternative storytelling formats

The multimedia piece uses many different storytelling formats. In addition to breakout text and quotes, there are charts, photos with text, slideshows, a timeline and maps. Here are some of the ways these elements are used to advance “Segregation Now.”

Photos

Photos are at the heart of this piece. They are used throughout “Segregation Now” to introduce players in the story. They’re also used as slideshows, adding imagery and depth to the narrative.

Here, you’ll see a photograph that introduces us to a character. This is D’Leisha Dent.

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Below I’ve attached an example of a slideshow. These photos are used to expand on the narrative. The reader is able to explore beyond the text. This photo is the introduction to a slideshow that tells us about the resegregation of Tuscaloosa’s schools while also introducing current students.

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In addition, historical photographs are used at the beginning of the piece. The reader must scroll through them. Some of them are accompanied by text to advance the narrative, while others stand alone. The photographs are powerful.

Here’s a sampling of the historical photographs used to show how schools were integrated – and how white residents felt about that:

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This is the opening slide in the story. The title is written over a historical photograph.

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The pictures at the top of the story, which the reader must scroll through, are often accompanied by text providing backstory.

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Maps and data

The ProPublica story focused on Tuscaloosa but it represents a national problem. Thus, the storytelling team used a map to look at national segregation. This multimedia element is an effective way to advance the theme of the story. The map does not repeat information already in the piece, rather, it enhances it.

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This map shows how gerrymandered the Tuscaloosa school lines are, providing an easy-to-understand visual to complement the text.

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While “Segregation Now” is a story about people, data is important to conveying the theme. The numbers show how the schools were integrated and then resegregated. This particular chart shows Tuscaloosa’s black students often attend schools that have mostly minority students.

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While this is a story about people, data is important to explaining the trends.

Data allows journalists to explore “what is happening beyond what the eye can see,” the Data Journalism Handbook says. Individual points of information are not always relevant. However, when combined and analyzed, stories often emerge. The data in “Segregation Now” successfully proves schools in America’s southern states have become resegregated. By connecting and sharing this data, ProPublica tells us what the shift in education means.

Timeline

This timeline, used throughout the piece as the reader scrolls, summarizes the history of integration and resegregation in southern schools. Much of the information is new and serves to enhance the story. It’s important to put Tuscaloosa in perspective with what happened nationally. That’s exactly what this map does without bogging down the text.

Video

“Segregation Now: The Resegregation of America’s Schools” incorporates one video, which is more than 16 minutes long. It’s a fascinating piece about a principal’s fight to save Central High School. The video component of the story focuses on how to “make education relevant, make it practical, make education make sense,” as Principal Clarence Sutton Jr. explains on camera.

The video, available on its own here, incorporates historical context with the present day fight to improve education.

It’s a powerful video because it’s complementary to but different than the text story. We hear from Principal Sutton Jr. and Tuscaloosa students about the fight to help them obtain a fair education. The video also uses facts and informational tidbits.

Illustrated storytelling

While this story successfully uses multimedia, I think it should have encompassed  additional video in the form of illustrated storytelling. Poynter explains what illustrated storytelling looks like and how effective it can be. This Poynter article calls this format a “new and innovative type of journalism.”

I envision multiple Vox-style explainer videos that tell the audience how schools became segregated, integrated and then resegregated. These stories would be one minute each. This, “How a TV show gets made,” is a good example, although it’s longer than I’d suggest for this piece. These explainers would complement the 16-minute video that incorporates extra reporting and history to add to the text story.

Social media

ProPublica hosts an ongoing discussion about race in America through the “Segregation Now” banner. This is an ongoing series so the site smartly keeps the conversation alive. This allows reporters to develop a relationship with readers and keep people interested in the series. It could also lead to story ideas.

Here is an example:

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Social media was also important in helping this particular story reach more people. Twitter was especially useful. Academics, other reporters and people with influence shared it.

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Interactivity

“Segregation Now” is an interactive piece in the sense the reader has to scroll through the site. In addition, readers can select to view more photos by clicking on and then through slideshows.

I’ve included a screen shot below of an interesting interactive component used in the piece. The storytelling team created a database that allows readers to find schools in their own districts that have high minority populations. This helps localize the story, making it more relevant for readers who may not be from Tuscaloosa.

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I believe the level of interactivity used is perfect for this story. It’s enough to keep the reader engaged, offering a way to get involved. Any additional interactivity would likely have detracted from the story.

About the writing

“Segregation Now” is a news feature, based on the definition from Nieman Storyboard, though it does contain narrative. The piece starts with a scene. James Dent watches his granddaughter’s homecoming parade. We, as readers, know what the purpose of the story is. While there’s a great deal of scene setting, the purpose of the piece is to explain how Tuscaloosa’s schools became resegregated. We learn exactly how and when crucial decisions were made.

While a true narrative uses the characters to advance the plot, “Segregation Now” incorporates the characters within the reporting, interviews and facts. The characters aid the story, however, the theme could be reached without the Dents. It just wouldn’t have had nearly as much emotion and personality.

Narrative elements

The text at the heart of the story uses different narrative elements to advance the plot. Backstory is crucial to the piece. We learn about James and Melissa Dent and their lives before the present day. The author also details court decisions made in the years before D’Leisha attends school.

“In 1979, a federal judge had ordered the merger of the city’s two largely segregated high schools into one. The move was clumsy and unpopular, but its consequences were profound,” Hannah-Jones writes.

The story actually goes as far back to 1885. “Unlike many other southern cities, Tuscaloosa has a long tradition of educating black children. When the city founded its public-school system in 1885, it opened both white and black schools. That year, the new school board provided maps, tables, blackboards, and crayons for 274 white children and 173 black children,” the text reads.

This background is important in explaining the history of the town, the Dents and the problems with these schools. The incorporation of backstory is an important narrative element that makes this story meatier.

This piece includes multiple stories within the main story. The overall point of “Segregation Now” is to talk about how southern schools have become resegregated – and how that’s created disparity for minority students. However, the author uses three smaller stories to piece everything together. The stories are generational, represented by the three members of the Dent family.

The photos below show how the text is broken up into chapters:

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This screen shot shows the chapters in this story.
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This image starts James’ chapter.
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This is front the text-only version of the story.

Beyond websites

ProPublica should utilize new storytelling tools to advance the “Segregation Now” series. I would incorporate photo and video tools such as Explory, Storehouse and Steller. The multimedia components produced in these platforms could be used on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to further enrich this specific story and the series. They could take photos with facts and data and create short explainer-style videos with these apps.

Final thoughts

Mindy McAdams says journalists should answer the question, “What do you intend to communicate?” “This might be the most common mistake that journalists make: Often we give little or no thought to this question and its answer,” McAdams writes.

“Segregation Now” does not have this problem. It’s theme and purpose are clear. The text story and multimedia combine to tell the reader exactly what the problem is: America’s schools have become resegregated and that’s disenfranchising minority students.

“Segregation Now: The Resegregation of America’s Schools” is truly a compilation of the storytelling facets we discussed this semester. It’s a remarkable story driven by multimedia components. Text is combined with video, photos, slideshows, data, charts, maps and a timeline to give a multifaceted in-depth look at the segregation in these schools.

The ProPublica team pulled off a difficult task by creating a multimedia story with unique elements, while also digging deep to report an important, serious story. Reporters need to figure out how to balance these two tasks. Fact-finding, developing sources and reporting should never be forsaken in order to focus on developing additional components. However, these additional elements can be beneficial – and even essential – in telling complete stories.

“Segregation Now” is successful because the multimedia elements never distract from the text. Instead, they aid the story’s advancement. This is important. “We should not forget that producing multimedia content is as much about mindset as skills. Imitators of ‘Snow Fall’ might mistakenly add bells and whistles that do nothing to enhance the story itself,” McAdams writes on Medium.

Each multimedia element should serve a purpose. “Ideally, each one is used in a way that makes the most of its strengths. Components of the story are crafted to complement one another. Redundancy will detract from the experience—that is, if aspects of the story are told in video and also in the text, users might lose interest quickly,” McAdams explains.

This story is an achievement in this field. I hope this serves as a model for journalists.

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