The tension between the young and the old in digital storytelling
Creativity Marketing Transformation

3 Digital Storytelling Lessons from Old Media


There are only a few things that can throw off my morning, and opening my door to an empty front step is one of them. That’s why I couldn’t blame the 10 percent of Boston Globe subscribers who did not receive their newspapers for freaking out over the past few weeks, as the publication rolled out its new delivery service. We all have our own habits of how we consume media—no matter where we live—whether it’s on paper, online, or a combination of both. When that balance gets thrown off, it’s not a good feeling.

Reading the passionate subscriber complaints in The Globe‘s reader forum such as, “the biggest difference with the digital paper—you can’t spill coffee on it and have it remain intact!” made me realize that media may not be as out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new as we thought. For decades, media companies have given people stories that set their days in motion. Although digital storytelling may have exposed holes in these tried-and-true formulas, and introduced rituals that push beyond the five o’clock news time frame, there is something to be said about the commitment that these publications have secured, and the loyal readership that refuses to go down quietly.

“Virtually everyone is in on the publishing game, but not everyone is winning it,” writes Theresa Cramer in eContent Magazine. Cramer offers a sobering reminder: Just because everyone from Weight Watchers, Gwyneth Paltrow, and DJ Khaled can create expert advice, write newsletters, and post Snap stories, only a few succeed. Preserve, which bid farewell in October, and breaking-news startup Circa, which shut its doors in June, are just a few examples of newcomers that faded fast. For new and traditional publishers to succeed, they have to be fully ingrained in the rituals of its audience.

The Globe created this kind of committed relationship with its enduring bunch of subscribers, eager to poke their heads out of the front door on a cold morning to see if the paper had arrived. This reader dependency was evident in the weeks during and after the botched delivery service rollout, as readers expressed their anger in hundreds of unhappy letters to the editor. The newspaper gave them the opportunity to step back from the busyness of their lives and read world-class stories. As brands and media companies continue to shape their digital storytelling strategies, the challenge is creating a media space that people make time for and turn to as a guiding voice and source of connection. But as Cramer so eloquently states above, only a few publications have built this kind of audience loyalty. It’s possible that “winning” does not mean choosing between the new and old media worlds, but instead, understanding how to nourish audiences in the formats and channels that have emerged in the digital age.

This post will offer three pillars that feed the overarching needs of audiences and highlight media brands that are leading the way.

1. Stories Validate

When Time, Inc. acquired HelloGiggles, a digital storytelling haven for young women created by Zooey Deschanel, the editor of People (one of Time’s publications), was thrilled. “HelloGiggles has become like a smart, funny friend who tells me about things I might otherwise miss,” he wrote in his Editor’s Letter. Digital-first media companies built to reach and engage niche audiences excel at developing confidant, friend-like personas. HelloGiggles has a personality, and in every headline and image, it shows. Writers delight in celebrity interactions, work-productivity hacks, and the work of Alice Paul. Every story urges readers to embrace their imperfections and obsessions.

Good media experiences don’t just tell great stories, they affirm the reader of who they are and what they are going through.

HelloGiggles was acquired by Time, Inc

2. Stories Build Connections

Jonah Peretti did not create BuzzFeed for entire posts dedicated to pictures of running basset hounds. He created the site for the moments that those hounds elicit—the Gchat conversations, the laughter erupting in an otherwise silent office on the middle of a Tuesday afternoon.

The most viral stories over the past few years, the ones that have been forwarded from email to email and flooded our news feeds, are the ones that remind us that we are human, and give us an avenue to learn more about peers. The New York Times dialect quiz or questions that lead to love are both examples that integrated the media giant into readers’ lives and gave them a reason to go deeper into their relationships.

NYT Dialect quiz

In knowing that these kinds of reactions are possible, media can continue to be a positive force shaping the ways that we interact.

3. Stories Enlighten

Digital media has taken boundaries away from storytelling, and those possibilities have just begun to unfold. Virtual reality gave us a 360-degree view into the day of a Syrian Refugees, and digital newcomers Wait But Why emerged from the passion that two friends had around delving deep into life’s big questions—and writing for a loooooong time about it.

Wait but Why

These are all examples of how strong media companies uncover the truth; they make us realize that there is rarely a final answer. Where we used to rely on facts and watch out for corrections, we understand now that there is always another side to the story, and another crack to shine a light on. James Fallows cites Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as a few of the first leaders who tipped the story in new ways, not to deny or protest, but allow for a shift in audience understanding.

The Media’s Evolving Impact

There’s no question that the way we consume media has changed, but our dependence on good stories, has and will remain the same. The best storytellers are the ones who know that holes can always be dug a little bit deeper and pay attention when their shovel hits a rock. Success lies not in moving from old to new, but in recognizing the core, human needs of our audience, and building strategy stories that shape their lives.

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