Great Digital Content Needs a Conspiracy - and Accomplices

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You’re either in or you’re out.

-Danny Ocean, Ocean's 11

Who doesn’t love a good heist movie? The leader with the master plan and cast of characters each with a unique set of skills to drive the plan to action… the greaseman, the decoy, the grifter, the hacker, the munitions expert, and of course the get-away. To pull off a great heist, the conspiracy needs accomplices - to pull off great content, writers need them too.

In many ways this article is a ghost of publishing past; the progeny of a back-and-forth exchange between a writer and an editor with a quick design pass to put finishing touches on the image. Contrast this with the paradigm shift The New York Times has ushered in with interactive stories. The latest, employs programmers, photographers, videographers, heck even amateur cartographers to bring to life the story of the Sierra Madre.

These pieces are harbingers of a much more collaborative content future with accomplices both familiar and foreign. While today, features like this are expensive and sporadically published, technologies and economies of scale are emerging to make robust multi-media storytelling the status quo in the near future.

Here are some other unlikely accomplices that publishers need to succeed:

Accomplice #1: Data strategists Vocativ - a fearless new data-driven news desk - launched this past month with promises to filter the unstructured web to surface stories that sit below the shallows of popular culture. How do they do it? They combine a more traditional editorial staff of writers and editors with a team of data analysts trained in OSINT - a methodology for gathering information that is freely available on the deep web but not easily surfaced by search engines and conventional content platforms . The result? Rich multi-dimensional story-telling around unique stories you’re unlikely to find on Buzzfeed. Yet.

Accomplice #2: Readers xoJane - a vocal community of women promoting inclusion and uplift - boasts some of the most fluid dynamics of authorship. The xoJane community exists in a meritocracy where good discussions surface as story ideas, where contributors regularly emerge from the commenting ranks and where an open thread can generate 1,000+ comments from readers. In just 2.5 years xoJane has grown a community of 4 million readers with over 2,000 comments daily and and nearly 100 readers who have become contributing writers. Handing the keys over to readers can be a risk, but empowering this democratization can get you to a million.

Accomplice #3: Designers 40 Days of Dating - a design / sociology project documenting a dating experiment between two colleagues - illustrates (pun intended) the power of written and visual communication in harmony. In this instance the writers are the designers, but regardless it is clear how design muscle can enhance, interpret and transform written content in both practical and aesthetic ways. Over the past few years, designers have established themselves as truly valuable partners in the story-telling process, flexing their muscle for the informational, commercial, or sentimental.

Accomplice #4: Programmers Pitchfork - the indie music mag - has been churning out some amazing feature cover stories that are challenging how a digital platform can deliver long-form content. These cover stories are driven by layouts that can deliver a unique blend of aural, visual and tactile elements, making them not only powerful, but more programmatic than some of the hand-coded examples above. Granted these types of features aren’t in the daily diet yet, but they are a portent for rich, responsive and repeatable content to come.

These conspirators foreshadow a bold future for publishing - but a future as such must be sustained by the right economics. The economics of resourcing will push publishers to staff differently and - for the bigger ones - merge cross-discipline competencies for efficiency. The economics of time will put pressure on platform and process ; if it doesn’t fit neatly into daily publishing practices or the hourly new-cycle, it won’t be sustainable. Most importantly, economies of scale will allow more established publications to claim the first wins - but the structures to support a new status quo will likely be defined through the nimbleness of smaller publications and start-ups.

We are entering a world of publishing odd couples and crowded bylines … and I’m truly stoked for it. Check out our latest stab here.

Ed Urgola is Senior Director at Say Media. Follow him on Twitter @edurgola.