Basic training in Flash journalism

Phil O’Connor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch e-mailed me about the Post-Dispatch’s latest Flash journalism project: Reporting for Duty. O’Connor and photographer David Carson followed a group of U.S. Army recruits through their nine weeks in basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, in Missouri. The result was a six-chapter series, supplemented with online video interviews and features, all wrapped in a Flash shell.

Flash accompaniments to major investigative or feature projects have become a mainstay of departments over the past several years. But how well does the format serve the audience? What have we learned about storytelling in the Flash medium and what ought journalists be doing to help production conventions evolve?

So I asked Jean Buchanan, assistant managing editor/projects for the Post-Dispatch, to reflect via e-mail on this project, then take a look ahead based on what the paper’s staff, online and off, have learned from it.

OJR: What projects at other news organizations or websites inspired the design for this project?

Buchanan: For the multimedia part, we basically started from scratch. The primary online programmer on this project, Rich Rokicki, says he went into this kind of blindly without checking out too many things beforehand. The idea was to keep it very simple.

OJR: Do you think that this is the most ambitious online project that’s been done to date at the Post-Dispatch? What are some of the Post-Dispatch’s notable previous online projects?

Buchanan: Yes, this is the most ambitious online project we’ve done to date. Here are some of our previous projects:

The Blues project

From Afghanistan

Feeding Africa

Recovery and Salvation

Stan the Man

OJR: What do you think is unique about the design and functionality of this project?

Buchanan: The “Meet the Squad” page was one of our favorites. The short video interviews with the recruits early in their training were very revealing and the flicking of each person’s pictures was engaging. The photos helped connect each of these recruits to readers because the treatment showed their humanity. We also put together a movie-type trailer that we released in advance of the project to generate interest. Once the project launched, that video became our introduction to all the videos.

OJR: What personnel and processes did the Post-Dispatch need to have in place in order to make this project happen?

Buchanan: A photographer comfortable with video and video editing, an online photo editor and Flash programmers. This project was a major test because the photographer, David Carson, had shot limited video before this, and this is the first project by Rich Rokicki, the primary Flash programmer. We learned that our processes need to be refined to ensure that we aren’t trying to change a lot of things in the last week or two.

OJR: Did you consider other formats before deciding on this design and functionality for this project? What were they and why didn’t they stick?

Buchanan: No. But after the project was over, we realized some things just did not work. For instance, viewing story copy in the Flash presentation did not work well. The stories should have been on their own webpage, not in the multimedia presentation. We’ve certainly learned more about the questions to ask next time.

OJR: How have readers responded to the project’s online presentation? What’s the traffic, especially in comparison with previous online projects and Post-Dispatch feature stories?

Buchanan: The traffic to this project is very strong, relative to other multimedia/interactive projects we’ve done in this manner, but it doesn’t show up strong in our pageview counts relative to other stories or features.

The one thing no one likes, and which we would definitely do differently, is the presentation of the story. Because of the limitations of the design, the window for reading the story is too small and people have complained about having to scroll so much. We’ve talked about a way to present the stories outside of the Flash next time up.

OJR: What’s the lesson that you’ve taken away from this project, that could be applied to others in the future to make them better?

Buchanan: We need to:

  • Learn how to think through the story we want to tell through video — still new for most of us.
  • Learn how to package content like this in a way that is well integrated with the rest of the site, but doesn’t short-change us in terms of pageview traffic. The self-contained nature of this project translates into one pageview per visit — regardless of how much time a viewer spends or how much content they view.
  • Learn to be more adept at some of the Flash tools that would plug us in better to our Omniture metrics software. Doing some could mean more pageviews.
  • Figure out how to integrate it in a way that offers advertisers more impressions. In addition to the one pageview per visit, we only offer one advertising impression.
  • Figure out a more systematic online marketing campaign to get exposure for our work.

    What is your reaction to the Post-Dispatch’s project, or to similar Flash news presentations? Please tell us in the comments.

  • About Robert Niles

    Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


    1. Benjamin Philips says:

      Very cool, I love it, it sounds like good fun !