Ok, time to let you in on a not-so-secret secret: longform storytelling is making a comeback online. Just as we thought attention spans are moving towards a 140-character-maximum, sites like Medium or the Atavist are publishing long and well-crafted stories for a growing audience.
They are not alone. Ever since the New York Times published Snow Fall, the grand-daddy of immersive storytelling, other journalism outlets have tried to integrate highly produced stories featuring video, audio, graphics and photography in their online mix to show how journalism can look like in the digital age.
Up until recently, only well-funded organizations could pull off truly impressive longform story experiences and it still takes quite a bit of skill and money to do something great. But new and better (and cheaper) tools bring longform storytelling now well within the reach of bloggers and publishers with less time, money, and coding skill.
Here at Flip we took up the challenge and published a longer story on the digital nature of Taiwan’s sunflower revolution in a slighly experimental “immersive” format. Here is how we did it and some tips on how you can incorporate longform storytelling on your WordPress site.
The Story Engine
The first thing you need is the right tool. We used an exciting new suite of open-source tools and components called the Aesop Story Engine. It’s available for free as a WordPress plugin. Aesop is still in its early days of development and definitely has some room for improvement but it shows great potential.
Making it Work on Your WordPress Blog
Ok, an open-source plugin sounds great and all, but does it really work? Well, yes, but only if your theme is set up for it. In almost all cases, that means no, which is where the people from Aesop come in and sell you one of their well-designed themes. If you intend to publish only longform pieces that is certainly the way to go. But if you are more like Flip and typically publish shorter blog posts and are already invested in your own “branded” look, changing themes for just a few longer stories every once in a while is not an alternative. So, what to do?
The Multiple Themes Solution
First, we need a theme that works with the Aesop Story Engine. Luckily, Aesop founder Nick Haskins (aka beared avenger) has made a sample theme available on Github. Don’t expect any bells and whistles, this theme just gives you the basics. But it is responsive and more than enough to get you going. Download the zip file and install it in your WordPress theme folder. I would also recommend unpacking the styles.css file in a tool like CSS Unpacker, it will make changing CSS styles much easier later on.
Next, you’ll have to find a way to assign this sample Aesop theme to a specific post or page. The Jonradio Multiple Themes plugin should do the job but make sure it is compatible with your current theme. Once installed, go to Appearance>Multiple Themes plugin and enter the URL of the post you want the different theme to apply to.
Creating the Story
Now it is time to create your story. It will consist of different components which can be added via the “Add Component” button on the top of the post editor. Aesop offers 13 different components including image, parallax, video, galleries and more. This is the time to experiment and get some help in the documentation. For a relatively new plugin like Aesop it is a remarkably complete feature set.
Not everything is perfect. For example, components, once added, can’t be fully edited. In practice that means you often have to re-create an entire component if something didn’t turn out as intended the first time around. Luckily, the component editing feature is on the plugins roadmap so future versions should be more intuitive. Image sizing and lightbox implementation didn’t always work for me and the gallery feature is still a little bit clunky. Also, captions can’t include links/HTML which can be annoying.
It is probably important to point out that some HTML/CSS knowledge is required to make this work. If you don’t know how to find and edit the Aesop sample theme’s stylesheet, it might be though to move forward. On the other hand, if you know how to change the look of theme you could really create something unique.
So how do you check your unique creation? Well, that is a bit tricky. Since the storytelling theme is only applied to the URL you specified in the Jonradio plugin (for example: http://flipthemedia.com/2014/07/social-media-taiwan/) it will only properly show there. Unfortunately that means you will have to publish an unfinished piece as the WordPress post preview function produces varying URLs. There might be a better solution for this (let us know!) but you could backdate the publication date to hide the story from the general audience.
It’s Story Time
Immersive stories with beautiful imagery, video, nice animation and gripping text can be a great audience magnet for any online publication. Keep in mind though that it takes quite some time and effort to assemble a convincing longform story. This tutorial is supposed to give you an idea how you can get started right away. Use it for experimentation and exploration and don’t build your entire publication around it.