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ProPublica and NYU release music-video “explainer” with investigative series

Forget simple kinetic type as a storytelling technique. ProPublica and New York University’s Studio 20 have taken it a step further today with the release of their music-video explainer: a fun, typographic animation and song based on ProPublica’s investigation on hydraulic fractured gas drilling.

The ongoing investigation, “Buried Secrets” — which contains 106 articles as of today —  is a thorough look at the environmental threat of gas drilling. But it’s rich with information — and lots of it. The music video takes a fun twist on that investigation, giving readers a welcoming sample of the wealth of information that the investigation itself has to offer.

The video is a product of Studio 20′s “Building A Better Explainer” project, which was launched in November 2010 by a graduate journalism class taught by Jay Rosen:

The project will experiment with the form of  “the explainer,” a genre in journalism that provides the essential background knowledge necessary to follow events in the news.

The Fracking Song completes that mission sufficiently. As I’ve said before about animated videos — I think they’re a brilliant storytelling technique in a day in age when consumer attention spans are short and the “shareability factor” is vital for the spreading of information.

As the Studio 20 blog explains, though — this video is just a small sampling of a very big, important investigation:

“My Water’s On Fire Tonight (The Fracking Song)” is not meant to take the place of the rich, detailed investigation done by Abrahm Lustgarten and the rest of ProPublica’s frack squad. It’s impossible to sum up a massive, immersive experience like “Buried Secrets” in a two-and-a-half minute song. Instead, the intent is to bring people in, to create an easily digestible package that compels news consumers to dig into the real meat of the story.

An explainer is not “everything you need to know about X.” It’s not a shortcut to becoming an armchair expert. But it is the starting point, the big picture, the tiny bundle of information that gives users the context to appreciate and understand the most challenging and rewarding works of journalism.

Although they’re fun to watch, the process of creating animated videos is long and time-consuming. So here are some general guidelines and things to keep in mind if you’re going to create a project similar to Studio 20′s:

  • Animated videos are not the medium for your everyday, run of the mill breaking news. They work best for long, ongoing investigations that are rich with data as a way of making that information more digestible.
  • A video like this can serve as editorial marketing for big projects that you’ve poured tons of resources and time into. ProPublica’s investigation is going to be relevant for a long time. What better way to continually get traffic to an ongoing project than to create a video that has the potential of going viral. Think of it this way: Would someone more likely share a 106-part investigation on their friends’ Facebook wall, or a catchy video?
  • Not everyone will want to dig into an investigation immediately.  A video like The Fracking Song eases people in and helps them understand the big, surface-level issues before digging into the investigation article-by-article.

So kudos to ProPublica and Studio 20 for having some fun. You should read the full investigation after you listen to the song; it’s truly impressive. Full lyrics are available at explainer.net.

Full disclosure: The author of this post, Lauren Rabaino, redesigned Jay Rosen’s blog, PressThink, in October 2010.

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