An innovative bit of multimedia storytelling

One of the bonuses for speaking at a conference is getting to attend the rest of the sessions and learn from them. The Power of Narrative, Mark Kramer’s latest writing fest, features a number of tracks looking at multimedia storytelling. Tonight, I went to see Val Wang talk about the techniques she used to put together Planet Takeout.

She wanted to tell a local story that showed how immigrants adapt to their neighborhoods, and picked Chinese takeout restaurants because they have adapted Chinese cuisine to American tastes in a unique way, and because takeouts become a unique part of a neighborhood. She used digital graphical tools like mapping, did immersive radio reporting, shot a limited amount of video and worked with a documentary photographer to create deep portraits of these everyday places. I found her approach creative, and appreciated little bits like using a Chinese takeout menu as the model for one of her entrypoints into her stories.

She said access was an issue, and that it took her two to three months to secure access to the four Boston-area takeout restaurants she covered. She then spent another two to three months reporting, gathering stories from each of the restaurants and their customers. Then it was another three months or so of producing the pieces.

Val said that she had hoped to spark some participatory journalism through her project, but this has so far been a disappointment. She encouraged people to contribute via instagram photos and stories of take-out places that matter to their neighborhoods. “That was experimental and frustrating,” she said. “It was hard to get people to do.”

I wasn’t surprised; when I was at LatitudeNews, we wanted the site to be participatory, a hybrid citizen/pro journalism model. We also found it hard to get much participation. Val did play a brief story that a listener had recorded, and showed a map with photos of take-out places in other regions. But she said she so far only had a smattering of responses, and not the groundswell she had hoped for.

It was a valuable session not least because I got to see Zeega in action. Zeega offers a simple way to meld photos, video and audio together into story form. I’ve seen Kara Oehler, Zeega’s founder, talk about it both during its development and after the product was introduced. She’s dynamic, smart and inspiring, but until tonight I simply didn’t get why a journalist might use her product. But Zeega was the basis for Planet TakeOut’s multimedia component, and Planet Takeout was in part the basis for Zeega’s features — the two were developed together, in a sense. Seeing how Val used Zeega, I got it and why it matters as a tool for journalists. It may be time for me to experiment with it (hope it doesn’t take me nine months to produce a project!)

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