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Detroit Free-Press uses Intersect to map and document Asian carp journey

This week a team at Detroit Free-Press continued 13-day, seven-state trek through the midwest to investigate the effects of Asian carp — an invasive fish species whose rate of reproduction and large size make it a threat to the ecosystem of the Great Lakes.

Intersect, the online storytelling tool used by the Free-Press to document the journey, allows users to map videos, photos and text at particular times and locations and see how they “intersect” with other people’s stories from the same time and place. The project so far contains 10 days’ worth of blog posts and photos, all nicely plotted on an Intersect-generated map and timeline, which is embedded alongside a straight, static list of headlines. 

You can read Intersect’s blog post about the project and see it live at freep.com/carp. These are a few of my noteworthy takeaways from the project and the use of Intersect for this type of story.

Don’t forget the basics.

When you’re using a snazzy new tool to tell a story in an non-traditional way, don’t forget the basics of journalism: who, what, where, when and why. Nowhere on this project mini-site do they explain why on Earth they’re following Asian carp. This isn’t a technology issue or a medium issues, but a pure matter of journalistic clarity. The intro text and first few blog posts don’t explain that Asian carp is a dangerous fish species that the EPA is trying to keep out of the Great Lakes with an electric fence. I had to do my own Googling to figure  that out, then the rest of the story made sense. Don’t let the tools overshadow the basic purpose of your reporting.

Don’t assume the reader will take the time to read all your blog posts.

The Free-Press is pouring a lot of time and resources on this 13-day trek. Eventually the overall findings of this trip will be published as a full-length, multi-article series — but upon landing on the current project page (10 days into the trip), I have no idea what they’ve discovered about “how much damage they’ve done and what the government is doing to contain them”, as the intro text promises. The only way to find out? Read through each of the 26 blog posts and draw my own conclusions about trends and findings. As a reader, that’s not my job. If you’re going to take the time to document an investigation in real-time, make the resulting product useable and easily-digestible. The simple act of posting in real time doesn’t inherently make that information more useful to the reader.

Find the medium that works best for your story.

According to the Intersect blog, The Free-Press’ Director of Digital Audience Development Stefanie Murray, said Intersect was perfect for the project:

“One of the reasons we like Intersect is because it combines geolocation with live blogging and visuals,” Murray said. “Being able to put content against a map, and against a timeline, gives the news consumer more options.”

For the documentation of this particular journey, the map is an important element for readers to be able to see blog posts in location-based context. The Free-Press is making its own use of Intersect as a mapping/blogging tool, but not really using Intersect for what it’s best for: Seeing intersections of various stories, from different people who are in the same time and place. (For a good example of that usage, see The Washington Posts’s Intersect crowd coverage at the Stewart-Colbert rally in DC). But, hey, do what works for you. The reporters get a cool timeline and interactive map without having to snag any development time from its own dev team.

It’s all a learning process.

Despite my criticisms, I still give the Free-Press a big high five for playing with a new tool and letting their team report in real time from the scene of their trip. Instead of simply doing an after-the-fact series, this team of reporters and photographers is able to tell mini-stories along the way to keep readers in the loop and pique general interest leading up to the published series. Intersect is free and easy to use, and the resulting product is clean and professional.

Murray said that the Free-Press hopes to use Intersect for more investigative projects in the fall. We’ll be sure to follow those projects to see how the newspaper’s use of Intersect evolves as they become more familiar with the tool’s capabilities and full potential.

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