11 Smart habits to improve your digital storytelling
  1. Know your audience
  2. Write for structure
  3. Master more than one story form
  4. Develop basic coding skills
  5. Create powerful visual narratives
  6. Use data to tell stories
  7. Use design methods for story coverage and package planning
  8. Adopt and master emerging story forms
  9. Consistently provide excellent metadata and social media engagement
  10. Embrace the limitations of mobile tools
  11. Get creative

How did I arrive at 11 smart habits?
Most of these come from ideas presented in an interview I recently gave with Lisa Geiger of Kircher-Burkhardt in Berlin. (Click to read the original interview). 

I was having an especially bright discussion and I have arranged to use portions of my text transcribed from their German-language report.

The themes discussed include new reporting methods for smartphones, the challenges of culture change for newsroom leaders, and how journalists need to stop writing for other journalists and start writing for the Web.

Robb Montgomery: Smartphone as Newsroom

Q: Do journalists have to become even more of a one-man band?
A: That’s certainly one type of journalist that is needed, but there’s even a larger shift to consider. We need to think about the kind of skills that editors-in-chief need to be able to lead digital newsrooms today.
The Web, tablets and mobile devices confirm that digital media is predominately a visual medium. Unstructured text (traditional narrative writing) is not a story form that works particularly well for a majority of Web users who are looking for news and information in their busy lives. Text has a certain value in a digital media environment, but any text used for communicating news and information has to be intelligently structured to get a decent return from the effort of creating it.
What journalists really need to do is learn how to write for the Web. Write to pictures, write for structure, write to spreadsheet cells, compose interview questions in ways that return data, chunk ideas, summarize, and organize ideas for news consumers.
And, the chief editors need to have hands-on, practical experience telling stories this way, too.

When I am ready to hire reporters I first look for people who are fluent in writing the metadata around what they are posting. I look for evidence of any disciplined habits that convince me they routinely project that vital story layer into every piece of reportage they produce.

This is Web 101 stuff.

You cant move ahead as a newsroom until every soul really understands how digital media actually works and how important writing with structure truly is.


Mobile to mobile media creation and consumption has already arrived?
We are starting to see more and more original reporting being produced on smartphones and tablets. And there is a rise in media now being consumed on those same devices by our audiences. Think of a Vine or Instagram video report as a perfect example of mobile-to-mobile media creation and consumption.
This type of end-to-end media connection will be common over the next few years and it will challenge newsrooms to smartly deploy journalists in the field. Editors need to develop adaptive systems for how and when to swarm the scene of live and breaking news events with agile teams of mobile-skilled journalists.
In this environment, reporting in static, unstructured text is just one of many options available from a rapidly expanding palette of story forms.
These changes represent a fundamental shift in thinking, especially for traditional journalists and their bosses.
Print, broadcast and Web newsrooms need to be led by top editors who have proven skills in writing for the Web, experience in producing compelling visual stories, and have at least a little coding and technology development experience under their belts.
I teach these core skills in my workshops. For example, how to report a story from a database is a gentle gateway into performing what some call data journalism these days. This training helps unlock the mind for new thinking.
Learning how how to tell and propel visual stories in photos, video sequences, and graphics helps a reporter develop into a richer storyteller. This is the foundation that allows you to better lead teams of journalists producing more visual-centric reportage.

When you combine these elements with best practices in writing for the Web and social media you can start to grow the literacy that allows a newsroom to make the big leaps that are needed. Newsroom leaders who experience this kind of training begin to see how an integrated approach actually empowers reporters and editors to think and plan better story packages and live event coverage.

Example of a data story and writing for structure


This is a story in which a reporter builds a timeline story in a spreadsheet.
They enter tightly-worded text, links, metadata, media codes and data.


When they post their ‘article’ they write more metadata so that viewers will know what the story is even before they click on it.


This is what the news consumer sees.

So they have to become more of a media producer?
Yes, it very helpful to begin to think much more like a producer. Reporters and editors have to think much more about the economy of information.
Where does structure add value?
Why is the most important text I write the story description and not the main chunk of purple prose?
In which circumstances does showing numbers and percentages communicate information more clearly?
Reporters have to be extremely concise, on point and intuitively embed rich media into their reports. Not just web links, but being able to organize and even self-produce simple photo packages, video sequences, sound-reports, pieces to camera, charts, and interactive images is critical.
Almost all of these story elements can now be produced in the field with mobile devices.

The idea of specialization is still important, but for fewer people.

Modern news operations need a broad base of multimedia journalists who can tell stories in many forms, text being just one of them.
Traditional news-publishers don’t think enough like marketers?
No. They think about the glory of 10,000 word multi-part series and the prizes they can win with projects that take six months to produce.
They don’t think much like retailers or service providers, and thats a real problem.
I used to edit the front page of a major U.S. newspaper. I used to work with reporters and photographers and graphics journalists for months on big investigative pieces.

I get it. I know how much fun it is to win big prizes.

But I stopped entering journalism contests about 10 years ago because it was diverting my attention from what should be a measurement of quality on how we serve our customers.
If I can help the life of my news consumer and fellow community member become richer, safer, healthier, self-reliant, better informed, and even entertained then I have won their loyalty and that is prize worth winning every year.
So it really takes some big leaps in thinking to be succesful?
Yes. But why not start with a small leap?
Here is an example:

Today an editor can to ask herself: “What if a data project or interactive problem solving gaming experience creates a stronger deeper engagement with our audience on this particular topic? Should we try doing that that instead of what we normally do?”

That’s how leaps are taken. By faith.
Journalists need to offer non-linear story experiences more frequently. They need to offer more experiences that are not necessarily article-driven, but rather issue and information driven.
We see legacy media houses struggling with these fundamental shifts in thinking.
But not only learning to tell stories better for digital consumers, but also in trying to earn money differently from them.

At some point, they need to wake up and say: If the Web isn’t earning the money to keep journalists employed, why are we on the Web?

They might start to say out loud: “Lets use the Web platform for something different than what we do in print and mobile.” That would be a good idea for some markets.

Some of these publishers need to skip Web publishing and go all in on mobile apps and services.

It is possible to use your communication power to bring personalized information, offers and solutions to our audiences. I know of a successful publisher in Moscow who did exactly this and has never looked back. They have their own mobile network, a suite of apps and many satisfied mobile consumers who are loyal to their brand.


A Case Study For Going Mobile

The folks at Styria Media in Zagreb just developed a mobile app “Croatian food” and it is extraordinary.
For the first time traditional Croatian dishes will be presented on all continents and to large number of people.
More than 200 recipes sorted into 20 different cookbooks are translated into 10 world languages spoken by more than four billion people.
Those are: English, German, Italian, Spanish, French, Russian, Czech, Polish, Japanese and Chinese.


A mobile-first branding strategy gives you the chance to gain more control of the transactions and can deliver great products and services that also earn money in a number of different ways. With specialty apps, with in-app purchases, with promotions, loyalty programs, partnerships, and more a media house can begin to see itself more as a transaction engine, leveraging their communication power as a media brand to enter new markets where they can deliver products and services of value to their audiences.
There is new chance to grab this opportunity with mobile, it will be interesting to see who else will make a big move in this direction.
Can you edit video on a smartphone?
Yes . .  but . . . Hmm. Let me show you what I mean.
I recently produced a few fast-turnaround news report videos from Paris completely with my iPhone 5. They are simple, but complete video packages.
On Android, it is currently not possible to do all that in one app. When I was training Radio Free Europe reporters in Moscow, Tbilisi and Bishkek how to produce videos on their Samsungs we had to focus on creating the pieces that could be later edited on a laptop.

These are really limited devices, but limits are OK once you know what they are and develop workflows around them.

This next step for me was to lead the design effort for a custom app that will let RFE/RL reporters produce video packages. We produced wireframes and met with their developers. This stuff takes time, but now is the time to start.

Is it important not to talk as an interviewer when you’re doing an audio-recording?
And it is very hard to actually do that.
To build a pause into your questioning is hard because it goes against human nature. As social creatures we immediately want to verbalize and confirm and then jump right in with the next question.
You have to be trained out of these bad habits. When you have those sounds mixing, there is no magic button that says “just remove my voice,” they are blended forever.
Audio is still the hardest thing to do well. It takes the most time to reach a professional level of competency.
In my smartphone consulting and training with clients we think a lot about how to improve the technique, the workflows and everyones expectations.
I ask clients to commit to a week of on-site training, a week of prep and tech solutions and two weeks of followup on coaching and integration of workflows.
I recently did this training in Zagreb for reporters from two newspapers.
We are trying to infect the reporters, but also editors and chiefs there. And this is really important: If the top editor is not in these sessions, the training goes almost nowhere.
So top editors have to realize how storytelling is shifting?
They have to participate with their staff.
They don’t know this stuff.
They haven’t touched it, smelled it, dealt it, or felt it.
They’ve never told a story this way. And that’s what has to change.
It is the top editors in media houses that have to be comfortable with knowing how to build a story with programming, to be comfortable with all aspects of video production and have a fundamental understanding of what structured text is and how to use it well.
Even more of a Jack of all Trades?
It is critical that the top bosses in charge of modern news operations have a deep experience with a greater range of techniques and literacy in many story forms. Even more so than the reporters.
Why? Because newsrooms are still top-down, old-fashioned led organizations.
Boards of directors need to be appointing editors with proven expertise in digital media storytelling in more than one platform instead of making political appointments or appointing people merely because they have institutional knowledge.
The good news is that you can gain this knowledge and experience. Just being middle-aged  doesn’t make you instantly obsolete. But you have to be willing to really take a deep dive into learning and realizing potential with as many of these new story forms as possible. If you don’t have those skills, how can you anticipate what your audience really needs?
How can you organize a swarm of mobile journalists unless you have firsthand knowledge of the limitations and capabilities of the tools and techniques?
You cannot learn this from watching power point presentations and sitting in board meetings and playing with your iPhone.
Mobile devices have made possible emerging story forms that just weren’t possible a few years ago. It is really a creative explosion. But you still have to be walked through it step-by-step and then you understand what is possible.
Editors also need to know what the limitations are. They often have unrealistic expectations with new technology. The technology is limited but also powerful.
When I first heard about it, I initially thought about the short battery life in my iPhone. What equipment do you need complimentary to the smartphone?
That is a serious limitation for some smartphones. Video editing can really suck your battery life. Samsung Galaxys absolutely require an external battery pack.
I have been testing a range of  high quality microphones and some of these also draw a little current from the phone.
The top microphone makers have been sending me samples of their smartphone microphones for my real-world testing and training sessions around the globe. The goal is to find reliable and rugged solutions that fit into a reporters carrybag. This a process that needs a lot of testing because some mics work best with certain apps, some work better in different reporting assignments and because upgrading the production values from smartphone media is an emerging trend. During training it becomes clear to journalists that probably actually have to carry more than one type of microphone to do your work. Audio quality is still the metric that separates professional from amateur efforts.
What Apps do you use?
Video: Voddio, Filmic Pro, iMovie, DV Prompter,  Teleprompt+
Audio: Garage Band, Audio Evolution, Tape Machine Pro, and Røde field recorder
For social photos: 360Panorama, Mixel, and Fotorus
GPS+ photos: Everytrail

This video is from an Associated Press Managing Editors event I taught three years ago that highlighted the importance of developing mobile-first strategies. 

Full disclosure: Kircher-Burkhardt is a bespoke media and design powerhouse in Berlin that employs the largest staff of information graphic journalists in Germany. They have donated their facilities to host training sessions for the Visual Editors non-profit on several occasions.