In December 2013, National Public Radio (NPR) produced a short series for its podcast, Planet Money. In the series, Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt, the Planet Money team followed the production of a simple cotton t-shirt from inception to completion as it was manufactured and distributed through the global economy. The story exemplifies a variety of techniques and interactivity to convey the narrative through different facets of multimedia.
Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt is a non-linear story that is divided into five main, easily navigable chapters: Cotton, Machines, People, Boxes and You.
This type of organization allows readers/viewers to absorb and process the story not only at their own speeds but in any order (not limited to start-to-finish). A narrative organized in a non-linear fashion is advantageous for online readers who may only be able to read the story in pieces and/or consume small amounts of the story at one time (1). A non-linear story gives readers more flexibility in their consumption of the narrative as they can skip over particular chapters all while arriving at the same end point.
While Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt in its entirety is non-linear, each of the various chapters is organized in a linear way, requiring the reader to scroll through. Other navigational tools within the chapters include linking to outside sources, providing readers with additional information to supplement the story and ultimately enhancing their experience (2). Examples of linking taken directly from the piece include:
Because readability is crucial to the success of an online story, NPR used chunking and narrow post width techniques to break up the text into smaller, more digestible sections as opposed to large paragraphs. Each chapter with its chunked information can stand alone but contains enough information so as to prevent readers from clicking around the screen to find missing information or forcing them to navigate the story haphazardly (3).
In the first chapter, ‘Cotton’, NPR uses a numerical list to further break up the text and the massive amount of information for the reader. To describe the ‘Three Reasons U.S. Cotton is King’ the chapter is separated into a numerical list: 1) technology 2) report cards and 3) subsidies, each with their own explanation and graphics to follow. Subheaders, also like those found throughout the ‘Cotton’ chapter, aid in organizing the information visually and draw readers to the text (4).
II. Media Elements
Basic story formatting is imperative to the success of web stories but so are stunning media elements. NPR employed a variety of multimedia to enhance the narrative that reaches beyond large amounts of informative text.
Most notably are the videos that begin each chapter in Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt. They include first-person/expert interviews, background music, collages of images, animations and live footage (inside cotton factors, at the shipping yards) and invite the readers/viewers to play and view the videos before diving into the text. Adding audio/visual elements elevate the storytelling and narrative to a new level (5) and offer a different perspective for telling the same plot.
In the fourth chapter, ‘Boxes’, NPR uses a clip of an archived video from the U.S. Department of Agriculture of cotton workers from 1937 rolling bails of cotton onto a ship to be exported as a way to visually explain cotton history.
Other visual elements include the use of still photos, used mostly to compare and contrast working environments of sewing factories and yard spinning in the United States and Bangladesh. The photos are a powerful visual device that goes beyond a written comparison. Photographs give readers the striking contrast between U.S. and foreign factories that words may not otherwise be able to express.
In order to explain complicated data, for example the processes of yard spinning, NPR uses photographs in conjunction with numbered steps to explain the information to readers.
Other data-driven tidbits of information that are better described visually instead of simply text combine pictures and captions, like those that compare the fibers from various textiles and/or textile companies.
Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt is a data-driven story but NPR is able to tell a meaningful story by effectively using data visualization (6). By using infographics and data maps, the information resonates with readers not just intellectually but emotionally. In the ‘Cotton’ chapter, a basic infographic is used to describe how the U.S. government subsidizes cotton farmers.
Graphs are used to aid in data explanation and complement the narrative. For example, much of the story focuses on how the United States employs poor south east Asian countries like Bangladesh to make t-shirts. The minimum wage graph shows readers the countries in the garment industry with the lowest-earning minimum wages and challenges readers to answer the question: If the United States is the world’s largest producer of cotton, why must we also use the world’s poorest countries to make our garments instead of making garments domestically?
Line graphs like the one below make it easier for readers understand complicated topics such as manufacturing exports as it relates to textiles and clothing and/or show the distribution pattern between top textile manufacturing countries (7).
And NPR uses a multi-colored bar graph to explain the cost of Planet Money’s signature squirrel t-shirt, from conception to completion. The large data set is transformed from confusing verbiage to comprehensive visuals in the form of graphics, specifically for nontechnical audiences, like those interested in Planet Money’s story.
Simple visuals, like those with text overlays/animations describing the size of the shipping containers Planet Money used to ship their t-shirts from Colombia to the United States, offers dramatic yet easy-to-understand data in a visually compelling manner.
These days, a multimedia narrative would not be complete without some sort of social media plug. In the fifth and final chapter of Planet Money Makes a T-shirt, ‘You’, Planet Money describes the steps taken on the popular crowdsourcing site, Kickstarter, to fund their t-shirt project (8). Over 20,000 people helped fund the world-wide project. Planet Money created the hashtag #seedtoshirt as a way for backers to show their support (and their squirrel t-shirts) via social media. Planet Money then collected the photos and featured them on their final page of NPR’s compilation.
III. Final Thoughts
Planet Money and NPR utilized many elements to create an interactive, multimedia narrative that was both visually compelling and informative. There is a perfect balance of data and artistic creativity that make the story an emotionally provocative piece without bombarding readers/viewers with information or sensory overload. Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt transcends cultural boundaries and pushes the envelope in multimedia reporting. The final products of both the t-shirt and NPR’s presentation are prime examples of what can be accomplished worldwide with quality digital reporting.
(1) Cameron. (2011, June 21). Linear vs. non-linear narratives. Media + Media. Retrieved from https://mediaplusmedia.wordpress.com/2011/06/21/non-linear-narratives/
(2) The Art of Linking. (2006, Feb. 20). Interscholastic Online News Network. Retrieved from: https://isonn.wordpress.com/resources/online-journalism/the-art-of-linking/
(3) Miller, K. (2011, Feb. 18). The art of chunking: Writing Essential. Kivi’s Nonprofit Communications Blog. Retrieved from: http://www.nonprofitmarketingguide.com/blog/2008/02/18/the-art-of-chunking-an-online-writing-essential/ (Links to an external site.)
(4) Thompson, A. (2016, July 14). 10 Killer tips: How to format a perfect blog post. Retrieved from http://writtent.com/blog/format-perfect-blog-post-10-tips/
(5) Tompkins, A. (2013, March 20). News organizations experiment with ‘illustrated storytelling’ — a new way to tell serious stories. Retrieved from http://www.poynter.org/2013/news-organizations-experiment-with-illustrated-storytelling-a-new-way-to-tell-serious-stories/207377/ (Links to an external site.)
(6) Waisberg, D. (2014 March). Tell a meaningful story with data. Retrieved from https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/articles/tell-meaningful-stories-with-data.html
(7) Arc News. (2012). Using Web Maps to Tell Your Story. Retrieved September 20, 2016, from http://www.esri.com/news/arcnews/summer12articles/using-web-maps-to-tell-your-story.html (Links to an external site.)
(8) (2013, Dec. 2). Planet money makes a t-shirt. Retrieved from http://apps.npr.org/tshirt/#/about