Jacqueline MarinoSusan JacobsonRobert Gutsche Jr.The New York Times’ “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek” created quite a buzz when it debuted online in late 2012. Winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, the interactive story about a fatal avalanche in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains was “enhanced by its deft integration of multimedia elements,” noted the prize committee.

But as noted by Adweek, “The Times wasn’t the first to pull off this type of format.” News outlets and brands including ESPN, The Chicago Tribune, The Seattle Times and Nike have told stories in innovative ways before and after “Snow Fall.” Is this storytelling method the future of Web-based journalism?

Three academicians — Robert Gutsche Jr. and Susan Jacobson, both from Florida International University, and Jacqueline Marino from Kent State University — will study the effectiveness and sustainability of long-form digital journalism on behalf of the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute: The three are the newest RJI Research Scholars.

“It’s very hard to innovate and take those sorts of risks without having some sort of data or perspectives behind it,” says Gutsche, an assistant professor at FIU’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “Today, it’s not enough to tell a good story. Journalists must be aware of how audiences interact with the work itself in order to make effective use of the stories being told and information given through news.”

During the yearlong research project, the three will study how individuals respond to various narrative structures, interactive elements and design techniques. They’ll also examine audience responses to articles as consumed on mobile devices versus computers.

 “The RJI Research Scholars program is just one way RJI can identify and fund promising academic research,” says Randy Picht, executive director of the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute.

Dr. Alecia Swasy, a professor and Sleeman Scholar of Business Journalism at the University of Illinois College of Media, was RJI’s first Research Scholar. Her research focused on how major metropolitan newspaper journalists were using Twitter.

Research specifics

Marino, associate professor at Kent State’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, wants to learn more about which design, multimedia and narrative features attract and retain readers.

“I want to know what draws users into these packages,” she says. “What makes them appealing? What keeps users engaged?”

Her study will include eye tracking, which involves following people’s eye movements as they consume content on a screen. She will examine what works and what doesn't work in engaging readers with long-form stories, which often include video, audio and interactive maps, games and apps.

Gutsche will examine how effective long-form pieces are on mobile devices when compared to desktop and laptop computers, and whether people are interacting differently on the various platforms. Professor Jacobson will look at different ways readers can engage and interact with a piece while reading the story.

“An interactive feature titled ‘How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk’ was the most-accessed story on The New York Times website in 2013,” says Jacobson. “We want to better understand what audiences find compelling about interactive applications in the context of news stories.”

This project builds on the research the three have already done on long-form literary journalism. Earlier this year, the team published “The digital animation of literary journalism” in the peer-reviewed journal Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism, in which they studied and reviewed the literary and multimedia elements of various long-form packages including Snow Fall.

The three plan to release their findings from the RJI project to academics and journalists through a white paper and articles in the spring of 2016.


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