Tampa Bay Times uses video to engage readers in epic tale of sunken ship

By Jounice Nealy-Brown

In October of 2012, a replica of the sailing ship HMS Bounty was caught in the middle of Hurricane Sandy and sank, ending a storied life that began with its starring role in the movie about the famous mutiny.

One year later, the Tampa Bay Times, Florida’s largest newspaper, published a special three-part series on tampabay.com/bounty. The series traces the lives of crew members who found a second home aboard the Bounty and the beloved captain who devoted himself to restoring her, but whose decisions ultimately doomed her.

The series was uniquely adapted for online viewing with video and interactive graphics that immerse the reader in the life of the ship and the harrowing night when U.S. Coast Guard rescuers struggled to save the desperate crew.

The video starts with a captivating tale of how passion and loyalty to a way of life collided with larger, terrifying forces — some beyond the control of the captain and crew, and some, perhaps, not. Our groundbreaking online presentation is a vivid experience that through words, video, and art puts our audience squarely inside an amazing story.

In addition to the digital segment, published for three days in late October, we created a print series that ran at about the same time. Readers could also follow the discussion on Twitter by using #BountySinking.

The video, though, was the key content component. Here’s a deeper look at how we made it happen:

The mobile platform, as you might imagine, was very important to us. As we went along, the responsiveness of every element had to be considered: Is this something that would size down well? At which point would it no longer be effective? Does this make sense for someone on a phone?

Then, via media queries and detecting user agents, we tried to serve the best we could for the majority of users on each platform. We had a very small development team, two people, so we had to use broad strokes in some of those decisions.

Load speed was a concern, naturally, but this type of media rich experience is a commitment both for the producers and for the viewers. We sized down images and trimmed the code at various points, but we also conceded (and hoped) that most folks invested in going through a presentation this immersive would not expect it to load in 0.2 seconds.

This was a big time commitment for our staff. The writer and videographer worked on reporting for nine months. The digital team spent about four months on it, including producing all the diagrams and maps, which were also used in print.

Key to all of this was getting everyone committed to the same story strategy. The digital team sat down early on with the editor, writer, photographer, and illustrator to help with the story outlining process. The team created a “parallel story/media flow” — side by side tracks of a story outline, identifying the key moments in the narrative where there would be illustrations, videos, and graphics needed. A “written” storyboard, of sorts.

To tell this story this way, it was important all staff members involved were all on the same page, that there was one script for everyone. We all needed to be looking at this as an integrated story: videos were to be like a paragraph in the story, illustrations were to be like glimpses on the pages of that critical moment in a great nautical adventure book.

And, because naturally there were no surviving documentary photos of the voyage, illustrations were key to bringing to life the dynamics of the story. We would have a final documentary-style video, but the inline videos were not to be “standalone.” They would be “quotes” or “voices” that complemented, explained, and illustrated specific moments in the story.

Graphics would be updates on where the ship stood against the storm at that moment in the narrative, catalogs of how things were breaking down as conditions worsened. Ideally, none of it was just repeating the story. 

And, most importantly, we were not going to do things just because we could. We wanted the story to drive the experience. The media was not to distract but to help tell the story. Immersive, but not intrusive. That was our stated goal. 

The story appeared in print on three days, a Sunday, Wednesday, and another Sunday, as as a special pull-out section each of those days. We published each segment earlier online, on Thursday, Monday, and Thursday, in consideration of our usual traffic trends. 

Traditional methods included rack cards, house ads, press releases, etc., but this time we even got a billboard. The writer did radio and TV interviews, we did a trailer for each day, pushed it out in various ways across social media, and now we plan to keep the effort up. We believe the effort must be sustained. 

We haven’t yet found the right sponsor for the content but are still looking. This content will live on for a long time.

We are all in this business because we love a good story, and we believe our audience and customers do, too. Even in this age of media overload, it seems great stories are what a lot of people talk about and share everywhere.

We are also all growing to be on-demand consumers of information and ever more sophisticated in our tastes for experiences and formats. And finally, by nature, we are visually driven beings. So story formats must also evolve. 

This type of effort is not right for everything, but it certainly feels right for epic stories like this one. Immersive experiences like Bounty or more elaborate efforts like The New York Times’ Snowfall make the story experience feel like a journey.

This appeals to almost any reader — not just newspaper readers. This feels like a good book or a movie, and who doesn't love that?

As we learned on this project, though navigating on instinct and flying by the seat of our pants, it does not require a team of 20 people to do this. It can be done by a handful of folks, and we hope done well enough to do the story justice.

About Jounice Nealy-Brown

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