Reconceiving storytelling at the Associated Press

Ted Anthony has played many roles for The Associated Press, from national correspondent to China news editor. Most recently in 2005, the AP tapped him to be the founding editor of asap, its multimedia news portal. Still, he says he considers himself, first and foremost, a writer—even publishing a book this month titled “Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song.”

Given the AP’s proven formula for writing breaking news articles, I spoke to Anthony about how this over 150-year-old news cooperative’s youngest division is tackling multimedia storytelling, how the asap has changed over the past two years, and what skills multimedia journalists need in the AP universe.

OJR: What were some of the initial goals of asap when it was launched and how have those goals evolved?

Anthony: We started the service in response to AP members who told us repeatedly they needed some help attracting and retaining the 18-to-34 year-old audience. But what we learned quickly along the way was that it was much more about how media was being consumed, than it was about the subject matter chosen for 18 to 34-year-olds. We found it very much transcended that age group. We have people as old as in their eighties who have said that they consume media in the ways that the online world has become accustomed to.

So reaching a younger audience was the dominant narrative, but by the same token we very much wanted to fundamentally reconceive storytelling at the AP. In some ways we wanted to get away from the assumption that a story would be text and photos. We implemented what we call the multimedia litmus test that would ask at the beginning of the story process, how should the story be told?

We also recognized that the AP is this rich tapestry of people from around the world, who know different things and who have different sets of experiences in different areas of expertise. So another goal was that we wanted to bring them into the mix, in ways that perhaps they hadn’t been brought in before. Their main product had always been the stories that they wrote, the photographs that they took and then applied in ways that were time-tested. But we wanted to see what we could do in bringing out those talents in different forms.

So asap has evolved into what we call a premium multimedia service of The Associated Press. The asap entertainment editor calls it a multimedia imprint of AP and an alternative storytelling lab.

OJR: How alternative can asap’s storytelling be given its clients—the traditional newspaper industry?

Anthony: Well, I recognize that when we talk about alt-storytelling in the newspaper industry, we are a little less alt then perhaps the mainstream of the Internet has become. But it’s the place where we need to be pushing towards—we recognize that. The way we are experimenting with storytelling is very much the mainstream in some online communities.

OJR: How is it different reporting and putting together a multimedia piece?

Anthony: I’m the child of linguists and the printed word is very near and dear to me. But when I started pushing into this stuff, I realized that the fundamental building blocks of storytelling really do cross platforms–and I know that’s a very trendy way to put it these days, but it is very true. We perceive stories in certain ways. We recognize that a story moves through time. We recognize that a story has characters, settings. We recognize that a story has resolution. All of those things that we apply to storytelling, whether it’s non-fiction or fiction, those things all play very much into multimedia.

OJR: Can you please give me an example?

Anthony: This may sound too lit-crypt, but for years when I was a national correspondent, I used first a film camera than a digital camera to take notes on stories. These weren’t photos for publication. I used them essentially to supplement my written notes to make sure, say, that if I was going looking for a missing plane on a mountain in New Hampshire, I could come back and write that the grass that crunched under my feet was green or that the bark was peeling off the trees. Things that I might not have noticed during the time that I was there but that I can have at my fingertips. I recognize that those were as much a components of my storytelling as my notes were. That’s a very basic and fundamental thing, but it’s not necessarily something that we would think of.

I have always believed that the visual specialists in the newsroom are as pivotal and as insightful if not more so than the word specialists. Once I started realizing that there was such a deep relationship between the two, and then I realized that we had to be able to control the tools that we use. That’s what we’ve tried to teach here. We’re bringing people together who are versed in different storytelling techniques and having them playing common ground. The common ground is the storytelling essentials. Once you get that down, the story can be told in a Flash presentation or an audio slideshow with photos, or just an audio podcast.

If we are able to see a story as a story rather than a chunk of text or a series of photographs, then we’re going to be able to tell that story in all different realms. One of the things that I have always wanted to do–but we never really had the resources– is to send four reporters with different specialties out to cover the exact same story and see what they come back with. I think that will be an interesting exercise, but to some extent that’s the mentality that we’ve tried to spread here.

OJR: News organizations have traditionally done the reporting to tell the story. Now more are trying to tap into their readers’ interest in telling their own stories. How is asap incorporating that form of storytelling?

Anthony: Let me come in through the back door on that answer. As a B2B (business-to-business) model, it is more difficult to reach out to users online because the online relationship is predicated on the fact that there is some kind of interaction between content provider and content receiver. A B2B model makes that a little bit more difficult, because it puts in a middle man, i.e. the AP’s member newspaper or the client, who we are providing content to. So we’ve looked for ways editorially to essentially make that connection without blatantly reaching around the people who we’re serving.

One of those things we’re doing is called “Assignment: You” in which for the last several weeks, we’ve solicited story ideas from people and said that you can assign an AP reporter a story. What have you always wanted to see a story done on, but you think the mainstream media will never do? We will assign a reporter and put the resources of asap and the larger AP behind it. We’ve had a great response.

Another thing we’ve done is something called “My World” in which we hand over a camera to someone who is in a middle of a major news event and have them shoot their lives for a day. Then they give the camera back to us and we produce the piece. One of the pieces we got out of that was pretty staggering in its impact but also caused some controversy. We gave cameras to two Iraqi children and one of them came back with the picture of his friends playing execution. That was a really dramatic photo that emulated the videos that you saw from al-Zarqawi for such a long time.

We certainly got negative feedback, but we also got feedback of how this felt like it was really authentic and that’s something I know that is tough to achieve when you are trying to develop relationship with your users.

OJR: Are your member news organizations seeing the kinds of results they were hoping for through asap? Are they drawing in younger readers who are actively participating on their sites?

Anthony: The active participation part, I can’t really speak to. I know that our renewal rate after the pilot project was roughly 70 percent, which I think was a little higher than expected. But that stuff is more business side stuff so I’m less confident speaking about it.

I will say that the feedback that we’ve received suggests that the more innovative we are with our storytelling, the better the results. Earlier on, we sometimes took safer routes because we were a still a bit unsure of our footing.

OJR: Can you give me an example of something that drew participation or feedback?

Anthony: What’s a good example? We did a Flash interactive on how to buy a man’s hat for our lifestyle section. It involved about six different pieces of video, with a hatter talking about different kinds of hats, how to buy them, what type of shop and that got really, really good feedback. That’s not something we would have thought about doing early on. It wasn’t a story in the sense that we traditionally view stories but yet it resonated with a lot of people, because it seemed to represent our willingness to tell something in a very alternative way.

I think that we have been surprised at how far we can go—in terms of telling stories in different ways and not how far we can go in being “edgy” or “provocative.”

OJR: The AP has of course perfected wire service format–getting daily news stories out quickly, accurately and fairly across the wires to member news organizations. How do you assure that those same standards transfer to asap when there is much more technical production work involved that may slow the posting process?

Anthony: We’re pretty relentless about hammering home daily that this may be a new department but this is the AP and certain things can’t be compromised. We’re in new frontiers but we have regular and sometimes very lively discussions about ethics and standards and how they apply online. When it comes to those kinds of questions we try to err on the side of traditionalism. One of the hugest things that AP brings to the table and through it to asap are the AP standards—readers know that they are seeing something that’s accurate and that’s real. We do not try to match word for word or image for image the AP’s covered spot events. We recognized earlier on that we should not compete with 3,000 colleagues in terms of bringing back the news. So we’ve looked for alternative ways into the news. We’re not designed to be a breaking news service. We’re designed to be a very timely, a very fresh and a very newsy online magazine.

So we aren’t cranking out news, but that said we have had reporters at every major news event in the last couple of years. We had two go to Virginia Tech two months ago so we definitely stand on top of the news. I think it is certainly harder because there are no neat answers that come from decades of literature that we learn in our journalistic ethics classes. But we adhere to the AP’s baselines and AP’s ethics statement. It has not skewed us wrong yet.

OJR: Can you give me an example a decision you have had to make?

Anthony: Hmmm…we had a story when Betty Friedan died on how she was the original “Desperate Housewife.” We decided we were going to do a photo illustration of Betty Friedan with the Desperate Housewives. This is something that magazines and even The New York Times now do all the time. These photo illustrations that tell something iconically. We had what must have been an hour-long talk here about whether we wanted to do this and if so, how we wanted to do this. And what we did was to have a picture that had Betty Friedan in black and white, amongst the Desperate Housewives and their very deep colors. We wanted anybody looking at that to be absolutely sure that there was a wink-and-a-nudge in there.

It certainly is a challenge. You have to have continual conversations about this stuff and you have to foster an environment of conversation in which somebody who brings something like this up, doesn’t feel like they are being a nattering nabob. As long as we are designed to be this forward guard of multimedia, we are going to do it within the ethical and journalistic boundaries that the AP is still espousing after all these years.

OJR: Can you tell me about the qualities you are seeking in journalists to tell stories in alternative ways?

Anthony: We hired 27 journalists by the time we were done hiring. We went in with the thought that we would hire about 70 percent from outside the AP and about 30 percent from inside the AP because we wanted something really dramatically fresh. But as we got to the hiring we realized that virtually the opposite was true. We ended up hiring about 40 percent from outside and about 60 percent from the AP, because we recognized that if we really wanted to try these new things and do them with “oomph” and do them with credibility, that we would need some real AP experience embedded in there.

We were looking for people who were flexible in their storytelling–and by that I mean people who wouldn’t say, we don’t do things that way. Too many news organizations in today’s world are populated with many people who say, we don’t do things that way. Those people are not going to be doing things at all if they keep up that attitude. We have to be willing to acknowledge that there is a certain core group of values and skills that we have, but that beyond that we are in this brave new world and we have to be able to think critically about how a story should be told and whether a story will resonate, will echo if it’s told in the best way.

I really was aiming to hire people who are willing to say, “okay, we will not be bound by convention.”

About Sandeep Junnarkar

SANDEEP JUNNARKAR is an associate professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism (The City University of New York). He entered the online journalism world at its infancy in 1994 as part of a team gathered to present The New York Times on America Online, a service called @times. He later became a breaking news editor, writer and Web producer when the paper went live on the Internet as The New York Times on the Web. He served as a reporter and New York Bureau chief for from 1998 to 2003.He received a Masters in Journalism from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia in 1994. He completed his undergraduate degree from the University of California at Berkeley.