How do we catch someone’s attention?
That is the problem all of us have grappled with since birth — as an infant demanding our milk, a love-crazed teen desperate for a smile from that hottie next door, a greenhorn hoping to impress the boss at work, or an empty-nester whose kids no longer seem to afford you their time of day.
The Straits Times’ Invisible Asia series faced this same problem at the onset: How do you render someone, some group, who has long gone unheeded and long been overlooked, suddenly visible? And how do you draw as many people to your product as you possibly can to demonstrate the depth of all you have to offer?
Addressing these questions became the heart and soul of this passion project and guided our approach to staying true to its purpose throughout form and function.
In its parts, there was nothing particularly original about the series. As a whole, however, it made an impact — because we hit our audiences in every way we knew how. In both content and format, we strove for the widest possible reach. We wanted our audience to see us, hear us, feel us … and, most of all, remember us.
Invisible Asia first sought to draw the immediate attention of our lowest common denominator with a highly emotive human interest story each week aimed at appealing to the largest possible number of people. You might not normally want to read about someone and their problems in a faraway land, but anyone can identify with how their life’s circumstances and others around them have made them feel.
Inside the untold stories
Chinese migrant worker Wei Xiaoqiang is trapped in an endless cycle of seeking day-to-day odd jobs to get by; his story is a glimpse into those left out of China’s poverty alleviation drive.
For those so inclined, we provided further engagement by using these stories as a springboard for deeper discussion into the important broader societal problems that these individual newsmakers are a symptom of and explained their implications.
The series sought to reach everyone by offering multiple formats. Anyone with interest in the topic, regardless of how they consume their news — whether by reading, watching, listening, or simply by scrolling through static visuals as one would flip through a picture book — could access these stories in a way they were most comfortable. Each story was produced in written text, video, podcast, and a wide range of colourful photos, depicting aspects of the newsmakers’ lives.
Ultimately, Invisible Asia was aimed at building up The Straits Times’ brand name across various classes of Asia’s societies, through both our readers as well as newsmakers. The series also strove to showcase our correspondents’ reach and in-depth knowledge of their regions of coverage by shedding light on some of the stories that most others weren’t telling.
For example, one story looked at Japan’s little-known shunned ancient caste of burakumin, who are unmarked by any visible identifier yet ostracised and schooled by society to be ashamed of their own people.
Why it worked
Educators have long been schooled on the importance of establishing their students’ preferred learning styles — visual, auditory, or kinesthetic — for the most effective ways to teach them.
The media — educators in our own right — can apply these concepts, too: If we want to reach all our “students” and have a lasting impact on them, our lessons have to be delivered in each of these three ways — with a combination of all three methods as well.
Invisible Asia literally gave a voice to the unheard and allowed readers to put a face to these unseen people who have for so long lived in the shadows of their societies. It made them feel empathy for these people by putting them — for the duration of the video/podcast/article — into their shoes and walk around in them.
Munisamy Katappa is one among an entire caste of people bound to an occupation as a sewer cleaner in India — an occupation that has long been outlawed. In this story, his granddaughter dares to dream of a life beyond this work.
Using the power of their own words
Every story headline was an emotive direct quote from these “invisibles” perfectly encapsulating their unique circumstances in their very own words. More of their quotes were also prominently displayed in pull-out text and video subtitling.
For the more auditorily inclined, the newsmakers’ actual voices were not only featured in the videos but also blended throughout the podcasts in a creative storytelling format that departs from the usual direct narration of the written text.
The poignant profiles and strong, compelling narratives in the various formats all served to pull the entire series together into a highly coherent package. The final product was then consistently promoted across The Straits Times’ platforms and social media networks each week, complete with a unique hashtag #InvisibleAsia.
The series garnered about 500,000 video views, more than 51,000 podcast downloads across 130 countries, each story reached about 90,000 unique users, and won a global Eppy award in the best investigative/enterprise video category.