Locative storytelling: Findings from our project

By Hilary Powell


The final report from Team LoJo — six master’s students exploring “locative storytelling” at the Medill School of Journalism — is now available for download (a 45-page report, plus appendices, in a single 3MB PDF file). Over the next few days, we’ll highlight our key findings and recommendations.


First, the most significant findings:


1) Geography is key

Geography is a key tool for making content relevant to media users. It is becoming a powerful interface for information search and organization. News organizations are increasingly geotagging, or embedding geographic data in stories, so they can be easily identified by their relevant locations. Rather than searching by keyword, people can now browse a digital map for relevant information for a particular location. The Google Earth-New York Times partnership is a powerful example of this. Also, Google’s news aggregation service now allows users to quickly see all the stories for a given geographical location. Geotagging is not only used by news organizations. It is also catching on with consumers, who are tagging photos within photo sharing sites such as Flickr. Driving this trend, many new cameras allow for automatic geotagging of photos.


2) Mobile technology is ideal for geographically relevant content

Key advantages of mobile devices include portability, location awareness that can be used to customize content, and the fact that people nowadays almost always have their cell phones with them. Increasingly, cell phones and other mobile devices will include GPS and other technologies that “know” the user’s location. This will make it increasingly possible to target content to users based on their location or geographic interests. Our experience with locative stories delivered to portable devices has taught us that this kind of storytelling, at its best, can be extremely compelling.


3) American media companies have been slow to develop mobile content and adapt to cultural changes

U.S. media companies are lagging foreign competitors. For example, in April 2008, French company Orange launched Read & Go, a portable electronic newspaper kiosk with access to several different newspapers. In 2006, Belgian newspaper de Tijd became the first paper in the world to publish on epaper – flexible electronic paper that can be dynamically updated. Meanwhile, foreign news media established mobile newspaper versions several years ahead of major American media companies. Cultural and technological changes have made consumers increasingly become “urban nomads” who are not tied to their offices and homes. But American media companies have been slow to develop content for mobile devices and to capitalize on this trend.


4) Cumbersome content delivery has limited the market for mobile and location-based stories

The process of getting content into a portable device can be time-consuming and often requires multiple steps. Podcasts must be downloaded from the Web, then transferred to an MP3 player. Cellular phones offer the potential of immediate content downloads, but most users are limited to content distributed through their wireless carrier. Mediascapes must also be downloaded, and can run only on a minority of portable devices. Google Earth offers a compelling user experience but requires a separate software download. The demand for location-based content will increase as the technological barriers fade away – eventually allowing people to obtain multimedia content on demand or automatically based on their location.


5) Young adults are avid users of mobile technology, and are likely to further embrace mobile content as social networking moves to portable devices

Mobile technology’s value to young adults will only increase as social networks go mobile. Young adults also tend to be more tech savvy, early adopters and less likely to worry about privacy issues and location tracking because they have grown up in a world with Facebook and other applications that make people’s private lives very public.


6) Newsrooms have resources that could already be used for locative storytelling

Mobile journalists are proliferating in newsrooms. For example, Reuters partnered with Nokia Research Center to outfit reporters with “mobile journalist toolkits” that allow reporters to file and publish stories from handheld devices. Mobile journalists are ideal producers of locative content because they are already outfitted with the necessary technology, tools and mindset. Not only are they in the field with portable laptops, voice recorders and video cameras, they are also on the hunt for hyper-local content.


7) Audio has been under-appreciated

Now that portable devices are becoming more popular for consuming content, people need to overcome the notion that audio is only for radio. Audio is powerful, immersive and often useful because people tend to use portable devices while multitasking. Several news organizations have started to offer audio tours that can be just as powerful as location-based stories. The New York Times, for example, offers several audio narratives of Manhattan neighborhoods, including tours of the places that defined P.T. Barnum’s New York and the Underground Railroad routes in Brooklyn.


8 ) The success of locative stories depends upon their treatment

Locative stories are more likely to catch on if they’re organic experiences. Consumers will be more likely to embrace this storytelling form if it fits the flow of their daily lives and does not force them into a location and an experience. Breaking news alerts trigged by a user’s current location could be really valuable. For example, users could be alerted of a big demonstration taking place up ahead and decide whether to avoid it or to attend. That said, there is still an audience for immersive, GPS-driven stories like Mediascapes, but the content and delivery mechanisms could differ from that of breaking news locative stories.


9) Readers may be suffering from overloaded maps that look similar

Newspapers widely and frequently use interactive online maps now, leading to what we call “Google Maps fatigue.” More information is being attached to geographic coordinates and readers may be turned off by the basic look of Google Maps, which start to look the same and are ubiquitous.


10) Location-based advertising is the “holy grail” of mobile marketing

Many advertisers want to explore mobile marketing, especially location-based advertisements, but there have been some roadblocks, including privacy and tracking concerns. Also, these ads are sometimes carried by select mobile subscribers, or are only available to owners who opt in and have GPS-enabled phones. CBS and Loopt recently announced plans for localized banner ads on certain CBS mobile sites. More partnerships of this kind are expected, although privacy concerns persist. The company that figures out how to provide location-based ads without infringing on consumers’ privacy or irritating them, while also reaching the specific consumers that they want to target, will be successful.


11) Younger audiences want to be more deeply involved in creating and sharing content, a form of social capital among young adults

We live in an era of user-generated content and participation. Young adults, in particular, are used to sites that allow comments, rating or reviews, and sharing. Sites such as Yelp and YouTube have been distinguished and made popular by these qualities. Social networking sites such as Facebook have applications that allow for easier sharing of news stories and other content.


12) Locative journalism holds great promise

We are accustomed to using linear interfaces, such as alphabetized directories and timelines, to organize and access information. But our experiences in the real, physical and non-digitized world are usually not linear. They’re spatial, dynamic and intuitive. Locative technology has the power to capitalize on that instinct. Also, now is an ideal time to incorporate location-based storytelling into journalism, considering the explosion of location-based services in general society and the technological advancements that are making location-based content viable and increasingly popular.