Saturday, February 22, 2014

Planet Money T-shirt: Making the news (very) personal

As an avid listener of NPR's Planet Money podcast, I was fascinated from the first mention of its ambitious T-shirt project, which would ask listeners to pre-order a new T-shirt, with the show tracking the process from seed to shirt. Having not purchased a cotton T-shirt of any sort in years (is that weird?), I figured it was time to update my weekend wardrobe.

The result? Wow. Besides the amazing storytelling and personal connection I now have to an item in my closet, who knew that a radio show could do visual journalism so well?

The well-designed website gives a simple, curated experience that takes you through the story in logical steps with clear connections and transitions among them. This was a priority for the design and development team at Planet Money, and they hit the nail on the head. There is just enough video, just enough text and just enough content to keep you engaged for every moment.


Every chapter begins with a full-width video player, and content with stunning visuals and engaging characters. The Machines video (chapter two) that shows the raw cotton turned into fabric, is particularly well-done, with an audio track that reminds you, in a good way, that this is coming from a radio program.

The heart of the project is the People chapter, with a video that tells the story of two garment workers, one in Bangladesh and one in Colombia. The choice of characters is excellent, both good-natured young women who live parallel lives in many ways. One of them, Jasmine, just happens to be living it in Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world. There is some arresting footage from the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed 1,000 people while this project was going on.

But there is lightness and honesty in their stories too, and we see them both smile more than once. The Columbian woman, Doris, laughingly notes how the shirts they make are "immense" so she imagines a bunch of obese gringos wearing them.

One of the first lessons I learned about video storytelling was that audio matters, and the narration in the videos showcases the radio origins of this project, in the best way. The thoughtful, conversational (I caught a "pain in the ass" in the Boxes chapter) and easy voiceover is more successful than you usually see in video journalism.

And while there isn't that much of it, the photography is beautiful. See the close-ups of yarn samples in the Machines chapter (left).


The writing in this project is pure Planet Money: Conversational, and with a concerted effort to simplify the concepts at work in the narratives. At times it gets close to dumbed down, but implicit in that critique is praise for the accessibility of this material. You don't need to have ever heard of Planet Money or economic concepts to get sucked into this project.

"The newest John Deere picker needs just one guy to do what it took five guys to do a couple years ago."

"(Yarn, by the way, is what ordinary people call thread. In the garment business, it’s called yarn.)"

In a way, they are writing for radio, and I can see that because my journalist radar pays attention to things like that. But it may also be my coming into this project knowing it would be a rare piece of visual journalism produced by a radio show rather than someone who just came upon it from seeing a link ( somewhere.

So how does it end? Well, I have a pretty sharp grey t-shirt with a squirrel drinking a martini on it and a website that will tell its story, with no advertising whatsoever, forever.

On the radio, the story ended with a wonderful episode about the afterlife of an American T-shirt, tracking it from a clothing donation to markets in Kenya. [More text at this link] That still counts as one of my favorite Planet Money episodes ever, if not just for this project.

"You", the fifth and final chapter in the full multimedia project, is where the listener/viewer/audience gets to participate in the story, with an Instagram collage page featuring people's Planet Money T-shirt selfies. It's nice to see all of those fans/audience members on the site, smiling back out. It speaks to the personal connection that people have to the show and the shirt, one that I feel every time I see the thing in my closet. I've never had such a personal connection to a piece of journalism, and it is more meaningful than I expected.

And my Instagram selfie? I haven't added it yet. My living room seems an unworthy backdrop for something with such a back story.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

My Media Diet: Aggregators vs. News orgs

I have catalogued my media diet a handful of times in the past few years (here's the last one from Feb 2013), and I must say it surprises me every time. Tastes change, available sources of news evolve, and I have seen my consumption habits evolve right along with them.
Here is where I get my news, new for 2014.
My primary source of news these days is Twitter. It has always been a big one for me, but the frequency with which I check my Twitter feeds and the frequency with which I click on the links I find there has made it by far my most reliable place for news.
Specifically I find myself drawn to social content shared by the Huffington Post, @AP, occasional Buzzfeed links and Politico.
More generally, I have spent a lot of time curating my Twitter experience, an important step in separating signal from noise on the increasingly noisy social network. I have lists for breaking news, buzzworthy/social news and science news that I keep organized on Tweetdeck and Hootsuite, and find myself checking all of them multiple times a day.
Facebook is another place where I find news - it does a great job of surfacing content that I will like, vetted by the people in my network, and Facebook learns the organizations whose links I click on. But I am simply not on Facebook as much as I am on Twitter, so I rely on it a bit less. For whatever reason Facebook takes me to a lot of Gawker, Daily Mail, Gizmodo and Deadspin articles.
Because social media - Twitter in particular - tends to have a short attention span (with the number of people I follow, my Twitter feeds only show me posts going back 5-10 minutes), I subscribe to a couple of email newsletters to check the top headlines, curated by the organizations sending them.
Every day, I read Mike Allen’s Playbook newsletter, from Politico, and use the New York Times’s daily newsletter as well as The Slatest from Slate to make sure I’ve read any big headlines that interest me. Mediabistro puts out a great daily newsletter about goings on in the media business, which I read every day, and Muckrack’s daily newsletter is a great place to make sure I didn’t miss anything buzzing on social networks the previous 24 hours.
Finally, I rely on mobile apps from trusted sources to check their top stories, several times a day. The New York Times and BBC apps are the ones I check most, but I use Flipboard and the BlinkFeed on my HTC One phone to scan a number of sources aggregated there.
An honorable mention goes to Circa, which I am not yet a power user of, but which I enjoy more and more every time I use it. Circa aggregates bite-size updates about big stories, and allows you to follow any you are specifically interested in, with Circa sending you a notice every time the story gets an update.
Overall, my media diet is pretty straightforward. In terms of platforms, I get 50% of my news on my phone (social media as well as news apps) and 50% on my computer (email newsletters and social media). Another way to break it down is 50% individual Twitter feeds, 25% email newsletters, 15% straight to a news organization’s app or website and 10% other aggregators.
But perhaps the most interesting metric I look at in my media diet is how much news I am getting directly from the organization that produced the content and how much I am getting filtered through my social network or news aggregators.
Because my Twitter feeds center on journalists and aggregators, with only a handful of original sources, the overall breakdown is around half and half. Email newsletters and official social accounts give me half of my news, straight from the organizations, and aggregators and news apps give me half of my news, curated by others.
What’s changed most for me since the last time I evaluated my media diet is my drastically reduced radio and podcast consumption. I used to listen to a lot of NPR and podcasts, and besides the occasional Brian Lehrer show, I now use my car stereo and my headphones to listen to music and audiobooks.
I must mention that, because I work in the news business, professional demands skew the picture if I include them. I watch a lot of CNN and News12 while I am in the office on Long Island, and check the Newsday site and app many times every hour, so at the end of the day those are technically my heaviest news sources.