One of the things that we love about social media is that it allows us to share an experience even if we aren’t physically together. At NPR, we’ve done that for years with radio dispatches from trips around the world. More recently, we’ve been asking some of those radio personalities and producers to bring the Web audience along for the ride, to tell the story of their trips in new ways.
We used Tumblr to publish these projects. Why? We wanted to weave together the threads of the trip for the audience and, at the same time, show our journalists how easy digital storytelling can be. In this sense, we see Tumblr as a gateway drug; it’s simple, flexible and powerful.
Where’d we go with Tumblr? Here’s a quick list:
- Ari Shapiro went to Africa
- Brian Naylor, Don Gonyea and Scott Horsley biked across Iowa
- Planet Money went on a globe-hopping T-shirt Trek
- Melissa Block and team took us to Brazil
The platform’s media-friendly mobile publishing tools and built-in social integration worked for our teams. There were, inevitably, challenges. But all of the people who hit the road with Tumblr said they’d welcome the chance to do it again.
- Brian Naylor said the lightweight production made it the perfect way to chronicle RAGBRAI
- Don Gonyea said they could have done three times as many posts
- Melissa Block was able to publish from the car, moving from place to place
- Both the Africa and Iowa Tumblrs drew attention from influential people on the trip with them.
People who had always been enthusiastic about telling stories in more than one medium — but just didn’t have the time for it — suddenly found themselves cranking out material for the Web. They didn’t tell the same stories online as they did on air; the two threads were complementary. And that’s really how we used Tumblr in these cases: one story, the story of a reporting journey, played out through a series of posts over a discrete period of time.
Based on our experiences across these four different Tumblrs, here are some tips for success:
- Frame the story of your trip clearly so that you do have a story to tell as you go
- This is reporting; make sure the audience learns a little something with each post
- Don’t be afraid to show the audience that you are on this journey as well; see Ari’s Feet, for instance
- Photos are your most viral elements, but variety (text, links, quotes, videos, etc.) is the spice of life
- Camera apps such as ProCamera, and SnapSeed make a big difference in image quality. Coaching from the NPR Multimedia team was a key ingredient to success
- Engage with the audience and sources through Tumblr and Twitter; make them part of the journey
- Promote your work through your own social channels, as well as NPR’s accounts
- Think about how to develop recurring visual themes; on RAGBRAI it was the helmets that we encountered; pull together those recurring themes with Tumblr tags
OK, so, we were very happy with how these experiments played out. Here’s some stuff we’re still chewing on:
- It’s hard to quickly build a big audience for these Tumblrs; how do we promote effectively?
- Integration with the NPR.org was spotty; it’s getting better now
- Tags are important on Tumblr and we could have used them better
- Striking the balance between postcard simplicity and intelligent reporting can be challenging
If it’s hard to build a sizable audience, you may be wondering why we might want to do more of these in the future. What do we get out of it?
It’s opening up the door to reporting possibilities that just didn’t seem feasible before now. In an organization that’s been looking for ways to evolve, this one fact can’t be underestimated. We’ve just scratched the surface here and if we keep at it we may well find that we’ve uncovered buried treasure.
Where do we go from here? Well, we’re about to launch one stand alone Tumblr to host all of these projects — and help keep the community going around them. Look for that next week. And keep your eyes on Ari’s Tumblr when he heads to London early next year. Learn with us as we go; we’ll be listening to your questions and comments.
I love both NPR and Tumblr, so when they work together like this, I’m overjoyed. Out of all the established news organizations out there, I think NPR really gets Tumblr:
Keep up the good work, NPR!