“68 Blocks” is a triumph of narrative and digital journalism

Part of the "68 Blocks" Instagram project

Part of the “68 Blocks” Instagram project

The timing was serendipitous. As the media swarmed around Newtown, Conn., following last Friday’s horrifying massacre, some observers were beginning to ask why so little attention was being paid to the ongoing crisis of urban violence. (Here’s one example, from The Phoenix’s Chris Faraone.)

On Sunday, the Boston Globe provided an answer of sorts: the first installment of “68 Blocks: Life, Death, Hope,” a five-day, multi-part series on Dorchester’s Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood — a predominantly African-American community that is a vibrant center of family life but that is also beset by gangs and guns. The Globe went all in. The paper even rented an apartment in the neighborhood, where two of its reporters, Meghan Irons and Akilah Johnson, lived during the five months that they and others were doing their reporting.

It was only a week ago that the paper published an ambitious three-part series on the problems of immigration. The long-term prospects for the newspaper business may be bleak, but the Globe continues to produce important, expensive, time-consuming work.

At a time when you sometimes hear that various forms of digital storytelling have made narrative obsolete, “68 Blocks” is an example of how digital and narrative can work together. The story itself — 29,000 or so words spread out over five days — is unusual for newspaper writing. There is no news hook and, in the end, no real conclusion.

Thus we are left to wonder if Nate Davis and his wife, Trina Fomby-Davis, will be able to move on with their lives after the murder of one son and the imprisonment of another; if “Tal” will ever make something of himself; if Father Doc Conway can truly make a difference; and if Jhana Senxian will succeed in her efforts to remake her small part of Bowdoin-Geneva.

But if you’re only reading “68 Blocks” in print, you’re missing a lot. Fortunately the Globe has dropped the paywall for this package, so you can take the time to explore. It stands as a lesson in how to do multimedia, how to use data and how to involve your readers — “the people formerly known as the audience,” as Jay Rosen calls them — to help tell their own stories. For instance:

Instagram and voices from the neighborhood. My students and I have taken several tours of the Globe Idea Lab, an innovation skunkworks inside the paper’s Dorchester headquarters. The lab is dominated by a giant vertical screen comprising nine smaller screens. On it is a map of Boston, with geotagged Instagram photos popping up as soon as people post them. The Globe tracked down some of the amateur photographers in Bowdoin-Geneva, got their permission to use their pictures (unlike, uh, Instagram) and recorded brief audio interviews to go with each one. Rachel McAthy has more at Journalism.co.uk.

Kids using video to tell their own stories. This might be my favorite: the Globe distributed video cameras to young people in the neighborhood and posted the results. There are six short videos online, and every one is worth watching.

Interactive data visualizations. Using maps and charts, “68 Blocks” lays out in graphic detail a number of quality-of-life measurements ranging from homicides to rodent activity. By letting the user call up the data she wants, the visualizations invite repeated visits.

A photo tour of the neighborhood. With audio.

All of that is in addition to more typical offerings such as professionally produced videos, slideshows and diary entries written by Globe reporters.

This is a series that should have a long post-publication life — perhaps supplemented by an e-book. It’s a great example of what a large news organization is able to do if it’s got the resources and is willing to commit them to a long, complex project. Those of us who live in Greater Boston are lucky that the Globe is still taking on such important work.

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3 thoughts on ““68 Blocks” is a triumph of narrative and digital journalism

  1. Kathy Cahill

    So well done! I read a couple of the pages of today’s installment, have to finish the rest. But I’m also going to avail myself of the online extras.

  2. Pingback: TGIF: 15 things to know about RI politics + media « On Politics

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