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.
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