National Geographic Experiments With a New Form of Digital Storytelling

By Meghan Ahearn

© Michael Nichols/National Geographic
 This image showing a group of lion cubs being raised together was taken by Michael "Nick" Nichols on the Serengeti in northern Tanzania. It's included in the special microsite National Geographic launched for the article. Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more images from the project.

The August 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine published an in-depth look at a pride of lions living on the Serengeti, a region in northern Tanzania. The article contained still photos of lions made by Michael “Nick” Nichols, editor at large for photography at National Geographic. South African-born photographer Brent Stirton of Reportage by Getty Images also contributed to the article by shooting images that explored the ongoing conflict between the people and wildlife residing on the Serengeti. While a photo essay focusing on wildlife is nothing new for the magazine, this particular article was transformed into an immersive online experience. National Geographic calls it the first of many experiments in digital storytelling.

The microsite for the article, which can be found at http://ngm.com/serengeti-lion, utilizes still images, video, text and audio, much of which was captured on location during the three trips Nichols made to Africa between July 2011 and January 2013 (Stirton traveled to the Serengeti for the final trip). At the time Nichols didn’t know a site would be created specifically for the Serengeti work, but he “always planned to have video and audio build off of his photography,” National Geographic Senior Editor Kathy Moran tells PDN via e-mail.

“He saw this assignment, coupled with the new technology of the drone, the robot and infrared photography [that were all used on location], as an exciting opportunity to integrate stills and video as a seamless visual experience,” she adds.

After the print article was finalized, Moran says editors at the magazine suggested launching a “Web experience” based on it. “The website offered the story team a great opportunity to collaborate with our Web colleagues, and to use photographs and information that couldn't be included in the print story. We simply didn't have the space [in the magazine]. On the Web, we could build out in very different ways.”

Jody Sugrue, creative director for the National Geographic website, and the team that worked on the story traveled to Nichols’s Charlottesville, Virginia, home for a brainstorming session on how the site would be set up. “A day later,” Sugrue tells PDN via e-mail, “we had a framework that emphasized both the photography and video elements and the titles for the initial categories, which were based around the content we knew we wanted to use.” 

There are 24 categories on the site that are named after different aspects of the lions lives, such as Awakening, Blood and Bones, Consort, Cubs, Hunt, Living With Lions and Trophy Hunting. Each topic offers a wide variety of content as well as a rare glimpse into the lions’ lives. For example, the Coalition category contains video footage of a male and a female lion. The video automatically plays with audio recorded on location. Viewers also have the option of listening to commentary from ecologist Dr. Craig Packer that explains why lions pair up. Other options in the category include a text caption box with more information about male lions, and four still images with their own text captions. 

The site is both immersive and interactive in part because of its design. The images and videos are full screen, without the limitations of a frame, and the site utilizes responsive design. Additionally, the navigation is easy to use and takes up minimal space so the user is encouraged to explore the different content on the site. 

“The questions for us are always: Did we make the story more accessible or more emotional? Were we able to add a valuable layer to the narrative?” explains Sugrue. “Without a truly linear story, we built the framework in a way that let the user dictate what they wanted to get out of it, whether it was images, audio, video or text. We all agreed that the end result should be simple, that the main thing would be for the design get out of the way and let the amazing visuals take center stage.”

Over 60 images are included on the site, only 16 of which appeared in the magazine (three images were published in the magazine that were not included on the microsite). Some of the images include audio commentary from either Nichols or Stirton—in addition to a text caption—that provides insight into the experience of photographing on the Serengeti. Every category on the site has a video and/or audio component. There is even a glimpse behind the scenes so users can get a feel for what it was like to track and photograph lions, including a chance to check out all the cool gadgets the team used to record content (watch the video below for more equipment information).

All in all, it took nine weeks to build the site from start to finish, according to Sugrue, who says the reader response to the site has been “overwhelmingly positive.” 

The Serengeti Lion site, she adds, “was an experiment in digital storytelling for us, the first of many. We'd like to keep pushing the boundaries even more and we have the stories to do it. Stay tuned.”

Watch a behind-the-scenes video from the Serengeti shoot below:

Related Articles:

The Serengeti Lion Photo Gallery
How I Got That Shot: On Assignment with National Geographic
Into the Wild: Capturing the Planet's Imperiled Ecosystems
Anatomy of an iPad App: A Photo Archive That’s Also an App

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