Launched on May 23, 2013, “Firestorm” is the Guardian’s multimedia story on the 2013 Tasmanian bushfire disaster. According to an interview by journalism.uk.com with the producing team, the project was inspired by photos of the Holmes family taking shelter from the fire at a jetty near their house. Realising the big news value behind these photos, the Guardian’s head of international news started the project with editor-in-chief of Guardian Australia. Feature writer Jon Henley and documentary maker Laurence Topham actually went to Tasmania and stayed two and a half weeks there for research. It took the whole team three months to finish this project.
The final work of the project looks very much like a digital magazine. Setting Holmes family’s experience with the bushfire as the subject, the story unfolds in a linear way. With multimedia assets including text, video, audio, moving image, and sound, the digital package succeeded not only in telling the human-interest story in an atmospheric way, but also in incorporating the Holmes’ story with discussions on bigger topics—long-existing bushfire threat to Tasmania and even to Australia as a whole, the causes and possible solutions to the threat.
Here is the story board of “Firestorm” (six chapters in total. Please read from left to right, top to bottom).
Evaluation of the multimedia composition of this story
What is good about this story?
- A clear storyline. Told in a chronological order, the story enables the readers to follow the beat of the Holmes family’s experience, with their tensions accumulated gradually along with reading.
- Transportative contextual information. “Transportative” is the word used by the producing team while they talked about the desired effect of the story. The proper fusion of moving images as the backdrop and environment sounds as the background music created an atmosphere for the reader, letting them not only to read but also to see and hear the story. Instead of disturbing, these assets are supporting to the text or the story itself.
- Smooth and simple transition. There are altogether six chapters and 25 scenes in this story. Scrolling-down is applied for the transition between scenes, which makes reader the one to decide the pace of reading. Meanwhile, without too many bottoms and taps distracting attention, the readers can focus on the text and atmosphere created by other assets, fully submerged into the tone of the story.
What is not that good about this story?
- A better way to explain science? Along with the Holmes story of escaping from the fire, the text talks a lot about the causes of the increasing frequency of bushfire in Tasmania, including vegetation (Ch.1 –hot gum: why eucalypts need fire), climate change (Ch.3 –a sunburnt country: is climate change making fires more intense?). Topographic contents are also included in discussion about the quick spread of fire. As an ordinary reader without much knowledge in these aspects, one could easily find the words and numbers are simply too complex to make a sense. Instead of using words, it might be more reader-friendly if diagrams and animations are applied to explain those scientific contents.
- Subject story or explanatory information? Except for the interviews, most part of the story are in a unified form of text with moving-image background. Although it is clear to the readers what the main storyline is, large part of explanatory information, Ch.1 –hot gum: why eucalypts need fire for example, seems to disrupt the natural flow of the subject story, making it harder for readers to connect the experiences of the family. Therefore, to distinguish the subject story, it might be better to differentiate the design of the explanatory information, a simple change of the location of explanatory text to the right side might help for example.
- No fixed sidebar menu all the way. The sidebar menu stays all the way throughout the story, which is not that necessary, and is even disturbing for scene of interviews. Making the menu automatically hide/show itself might be better.
- A richer stock of background sound? Readers usually stay longer on pages with long writing, but the background sound just keeps repeating…since most of the sounds are low-tone natural sounds like the waves and summer insects, the repeating appears to be a little boring.
* A reflection by the producing team on the process of making this story
It was a real fine balance of letting people feel in control but trying to give this beautiful, immersive flow as well. –Francesca Panetta, special projects editor, multimedia, the Guardian