Reviewed by Wibke Weber
Multimedia stories have long since become an established part of journalism, and much has been written on the subject of digital storytelling, in both academic articles and practical manuals. The multimedia reportage Snow Fall (New York Times 2012) is often quoted as an example of best practice and a prototype for multimedia storytelling. So why do we need another book on the topic? Because few empirical studies have so far been conducted into the quality of multimedia stories and one question – of enormous practical relevance – remains unanswered: What makes a good multimedia story? This is one of the two key questions that form the backbone of this work, the other being: »Do the convictions and stipulations of the producers match the expectations and demands of the audience?« (26).
Written as a dissertation at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, New Digital Storytelling provides answers. Author Jens Radü takes a focused, pragmatic, and systematic approach. It is focused in that he asks targeted questions on the specific quality of multimedia stories. It is pragmatic in that he approaches terms such as multimedia and storytelling, whose definition leaves plenty of scope for interpretation, from a practitioner’s perspective, without becoming bogged down in academic discourse; he defines multimedia stories as journalistic accounts made up of a combination of text, photos, videos, diagrams, and sound – »stories told by journalists in line with the times« (31). And it is systematic in that three empirical studies are used to examine the quality criteria for multimedia stories, not only on the product side but – and this is the book’s real strength – also on the production and reception side. Radü thus covers all three levels of visual communication research.
The book is divided into five main chapters. At the beginning, Radü examines the current body of research, its historical concept and specific quality features, before summarizing the research conducted into the quality of multimedia stories up to this point. Chapter 1 ends with a grid of criteria derived from the research literature (cf. 85), which is then examined and added to in the empirical section of the book (Chapters 2 to 4). The empirical section comprises three studies:
(1) Nine multimedia stories are analyzed in terms of their usage data. Further induced criteria are added to the grid of criteria deduced from the literature to compile a preliminary »canon of quality aspects« (86).
(2) In an experiment with 153 participants, three versions of a multimedia story are tested in order to assess the relevance of the quality criteria available up to now.
(3) In guided interviews, 13 multimedia journalists from German publishing houses, public service broadcasters, and independent production offices are questioned on the canon of quality criteria that has been determined. The research design is a combination of quantitative and qualitative approaches in order to determine, scrutinize, correct, and more accurately define a canon of quality criteria from a range of perspectives (Chapter 5).
So which criteria are useful in determining the quality of multimedia stories? The result comes as no surprise. Quality criteria from the research literature, such as multimediality, emotionality, dramaturgy, and usability, are corroborated in the empirical section of the work and added to Radü’s canon, where they are joined by further criteria such as immersivity, rhythm, and transitivity/transitions (cf. 251-252). These criteria are all familiar from conventional storytelling, and thus come as little surprise.
Radü’s conclusion is rather thin, reading more like a plea for good multimedia journalism than a critical discussion of the canon determined. Given that it is the core result of the work, the canon would have benefited from being highlighted better visually. As it is, its rather modest appearance causes it to all but disappear among the prose. A more multimedia approach would have helped here, and it is unclear why a work on multimedia storytelling takes such a weak approach to visuality as a quality criterion. Screenshots of the multimedia stories or the various design options would have illustrated the empirical section more clearly.
The text, on the other hand, is of high quality. It is obvious that Jens Radü, journalist and Managing Editor Multimedia at SPIEGEL, knows his trade well. Despite the complexity of the topic, the book is a pleasantly easy read, reminiscent more of an essay than of an academic paper. If, as he writes, Radü’s aim was to contribute to »making the specific quality of multimedia stories more tangible, grounding the sometimes airy discussion with empirical evidence,« (256), he has succeeded. By examining the topic of the quality of multimedia stories from a range of perspectives, New Digital Storytelling makes a significant contribution to the still relatively new research field of multimedia storytelling in journalism. At the same time, the results merely reflect a moment in time – an »intermediate step« – as Radü himself admits. »Ideally, the discussion needs to continue in dialog between academics and practitioners, media researchers and journalists, institutes and editorial offices« (256). New technologies currently taking over journalism, such as artificial intelligence, only make this dialog even more urgent. The question of the quality of stories based on algorithms remains to be answered.
This review first appeared in rezensionen:kommunikation:medien, February 1st 2021, accessible at https://www.rkm-journal.de/archives/22571.
About the reviewer
Dr. Wibke Weber is a Professor at the IAM Institute of Applied Media Studies at ZHAW Zurich University of Applied Sciences in Winterthur. Her teaching and research fields are: digital storytelling; image semiotics; data visualization and data journalism; comics journalism; augmented/virtual reality; media convergence; multimodality; and information design.
Translation: Sophie Costella
Jens Radü (2019): New Digital Storytelling. Anspruch, Nutzung und Qualität von Multimedia-Geschichten. [New digital storytelling. Aim, usage, and quality of multimedia stories ] Series: Aktuell. Studien zum Journalismus [Studies on journalism], Vol. 17. Baden-Baden, Nomos, 281 pages, EUR 54,-.