How The San Francisco Chronicle told a compelling, visually engaging story about gentrification without ever using the word
By MARSHALL A. LATIMORE
Lots of news organizations report on the impact of changes that gentrification and other types of commercial development can bring to the communities they cover, but their reports often rely on one-dimensional storytelling, usually packaged into a single, straightforward narrative of woe for a Sunday print product.
But The San Francisco Chronicle business team wanted to capture all the various dimensions of this complex phenomenon in a way that allows the families and business owners who live and work in such a community to tell their own stories, in their own words. They did so using two reporters, editors, its marketing staff and students from two local colleges.
The Chronicle‘s Michael Grant, a web designer, and business editor Ben Muessig recently shared in a webinar hosted by All Digitocracy how their team brought together multiple stories on how one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods is being impacted by the region’s tech boom. To create “A Changing Mission,” the newspaper’s critically acclaimed multi-platform interactive series, led by Muessig’s team, used different digital news-gathering techniques to engage readers.
They set out to concentrate on one block in a San Francisco neighborhood once known as an entry point into the U.S. for working-class immigrant families. That one block represents a microcosm of what is happening in the rest of the community (and in many other places in the U.S.. One block that holds myriad stories of struggling families and wealthy newcomers, all characters with different perspectives but similar stakes in this still thriving, albeit evolving neighborhood.
“We wanted to avoid even the use of the word, ‘gentrification,’ ” Muessig explained, offering that the team wanted to tell a story of gentrification without ever actually using the word. “The nature of the word creates antagonists, because people ascribe their own meaning to it. We wanted people to come into this with as fresh perspective as they could.”
So,they treated those profiled as characters in a larger story rather than just a set of journalist’s sources. They accomplished this through scene setting, using drone and panoramic technology to capture atypical, HD-quality views of the neighborhood. They used character development, with the reporting team employing a wide variety of storytelling media and user-centric delivery. The digital team pushed the boundaries of Web news displays with navigation that carefully kept the reader experience in mind.
Grant and Muessig revealed that the massive project, which boasts a 22-minute documentary, 13 vignettes, 13 accompanying photo galleries, long-form analysis stories, 24 additional multimedia vignettes, a number of 360-degree panoramic views as well as some breathtaking aerial videography of the neighborhood captured by drones, was birthed in a number of brainstorming sessions conducted in the Chronicle’s new “Incubator,” a tiny newsroom away from the newsroom—in fact, a whole building away—decorated with teal walls, cushy sofas, lots of sunlight and plenty of white boards to help generate – and record – ideas.
Particularly interesting, Muessig and Grant pointed out, was the adoption of a truly “digital-first” perspective when planning out the scope of the project. Unlike the typical story budgeting process ,where reporting for print and web products are tackled first then passed along to a digital team to upload or code, the Chronicle‘s focus was on first creating an interface where users could enter a story where and how they wanted to.
Even before potential reporting was considered, the team conceptualized how such a project would accommodate the reader’s experience online. Some plans began as sketches in Muessig’s notebook. “Early in the process, we started to determine our needs,” Grant said. “We wanted to create an online package that was truly multimedia, so that readers could pick their own path and establish their own consumption rhythm.”
As expansive and time-consuming as the project became — it was produced over an eight-month span — Grant and Muessig said their team, which involved as many as 19 members of the Chronicle newsroom, including recently promoted Managing Editor Kristen Go, concentrated on a single block of the city’s 24th Street, between Shotwell and Folsom streets, where reporters and photographers got to know a diverse, but lean selection of merchants and residents who are now in the throes of sweeping economic and cultural changes. “Everyone was a protagonist in their own story,” Muessig explained about the 13 people/families the project centers on. “No one was cast as an antagonists. Everyone is entitled to their claim to the community.”
Some of these “protagonists” include the Mosqueda family, 10 siblings ranging from 49 to 61 forced to sell their long-time family home, a triplex purchased decades ago for $20,000 by their mother and father, migrant farm workers from Mexico who scrimped, saved and borrowed to provide shelter for their family. Now, this worn-in home that once housed as many as 19 and three families, fetched a cool $1.3 million bid, the largest among four offers above its listing price of $999,000. “A million dollars!” Maria, the oldest Mosqueda sibling, marveled in the project’s vignette on their family. “My parents wouldn’t believe it.”
The creation of these vignettes paired with an empirical look into the statistics from sources like the U.S. Census, local police data, the Zillow.com real estate website and non-profits in the area — students from University of California-Berkeley School of Journalism provided the data analysis — is only enhanced by myriad visuals throughout the site that make navigation a truly immersive experience. “Usually we are tasked with illustrating a writer’s vision,” said Judy Walgren, the Chronicle’s photography director.
Instead, Walgren and her team were challenged with “getting readers closer to the story and really feel what was happening,” Grant said. So much so, that for the first time the photographers were able to see in almost real time how their “ambitious” contributions — photo galleries, video vignettes, panoramic 360-degree shots of various points throughout the neighborhood as well as aerial videography from cameras mounted to drones — were applied to the project. Grant and Muessig described this as “seeing the build.” As footage was collected by the photography team, Muessig and his reporters were able to assist in the drafting of scripts and other related copy.
In addition to work produced by the Chronicle team, Muessig and Grant also invited a team of student journalists from San Francisco State University to provide 24 additional video vignettes of folks living and working near 24th Street, a micro-project titled, “24 on 24.” Further supported by a grant from the Agora Journalism Center, students from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication—Kathryn Boyd-Batstone, Amanda Eckerson, Jarratt Taylor and Nat Needham—worked under the direction of Wes Pope, assistant professor of multimedia journalism, to provide additional footage.
Geo-spacial mapping of points along 24th Street where the vignettes were all captured, whether student-created or produced by Chronicle staff, threaded each content offering together. To do this, Grant used Google Earth and the Google Maps API, which gives readers an option to choose whether to see the locations in satellite view or in the default map view. Readers can explore where reporters and photographers those featured in the project– in their homes, at their businesses or just along 24th Street. By clicking on a place marker one can easily access the panoramic view associated with their line of site, in relation to where they are plotted on the map, adding yet another layer of immersion for the reader.
By shifting their perspective to a truly digital-first plan of action, the Chronicle newsroom was able to create what Muessig described as a “more immersive experience than the two dimensional” experience of print. “We were able to reach more than we would have in an average print cycle,” he said.
If you missed watching the video presentation live, view our slide show.