Imagine the scene: Two friends, Douglas Arellanes, (that’s me) and Pete Haughie, are sitting in a bar on a Serbian mountaintop in April at 3am. They haven’t seen each other in person for several months but have been excitedly talking online about two new digital projects that had been making waves in the journalism and web design space for a long time already. After a few local pivo and rakija the gesticulation and conversational excitement starts to mount. “You know that New York Times thing? I reckon we could do that with our platform.” boasted Pete. “Oh yeah?” I challenged, “How long do you reckon that would take?” Pete’s beer sloshed over the side of his glass as he shrugged, “I dunno, six months maybe?”. I decided to call his bluff and gave him a retainer and some time. Six months to be precise.
For quite some time, we’d been hearing that longform articles, and especially longform multimedia articles would be a crucial selling point for news organizations seeking to make their work stand out. The wave of hype surrounding projects like New York Times’ Snowfall and Shark and Minnow and The Guardian’s Firestorm has come and gone, and it’s becoming fairly clear that only the biggest news organizations, with the technical capacity and budget to build multimedia projects from scratch, are able to do this on a regular basis. Some of the traditionally big digital players have tried with varying degrees of success to do longform digital media format. The BBC’s The Reykjavik Confessions being a standout example of great content let down by less-than-great delivery.
Pete Haughie, Dominic Smith and I have been thinking about this for good long while now. When Pete and I worked together at Sourcefabric, we were part of a team that worked on a project called Storyteller, which was initially nothing but a complicated theme for Newscoop, the CMS maintained by Sourcefabric. Storyteller had similar intentions, worked OK, and was used effectively by more than a few organizations, but it was soon clear to us that CMSes of any kind weren’t really well-suited to this kind of work — the backend had to be pretty severely abused in order to arrange the content in a way that would work for this purpose and editing and to say maintenance and publishing became difficult would be an understatement.
Many in the journalism/tech community have come to similar conclusions. A few years ago, I asked a data journalist what we as CMS makers could do to help their work. “Get the hell out of our way,” was the answer I got, and I couldn’t help but laugh at the truth she was telling. There are other interesting projects that have served as inspiration. The Tarbell project, originally by the Chicago Tribune news applications team, was a really interesting model for us, as it was one of the first ‘NoCMS’ projects we’d seen. Tarbell makes it easy to publish static websites, which is useful especially in high-demand situations, as well as for situations where the content isn’t likely to be updated.
At the same time, we’re aware that although there are several very good services for hosting longform articles, we intend to improve on what they offer. We also aim to address a criticism made of many of the longform hosting services, to avoid ‘vendor lock-in’ and make it far easier for multimedia creators to export and transfer their work to other hosting providers and collaborators. Unfortunately, due to a change in Sourcefabric’s focus, work on Storyteller effectively stopped in late 2015, but Pete and I continued to talk about what could be done to make it easier to create and publish longform multimedia. In the meantime independently and unbeknownst to us, Dominic Smith had been doing a lot of work using Storyteller to publish multimedia longform articles documenting art projects in the North of England as part of the EU-funded Corners of Europe project, and his hard work and pained entreaties has served as an inspiration to continue work on these tools with him working alongside us.
Dominic, Pete and I decided to apply for a prototype grant from the Google Digital News Innovation fund in its third round, and I’m happy to announce that as of today our project has been officially approved, so in coming weeks we will start work on a new project, which we are calling Mural, to create a new toolset to make it easier to make longform multimedia projects. We’re looking forward to building Mural in the open, and as an open source project. While we have a number of ideas for what should be in the MVP version, we are also looking to partner with similarly-minded visual journalists, artists, storytellers, and developers. Please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org and get involved!