Some bad and good storytelling

One article mentioned on Slashdot in the past 24 hours is an example of one of my storytelling pet peeves. Another has a nice use of new media’s capabilities.

The bad storytelling is in prose rather than an interactive package, but it angers me enough to mention it here anyway. It’s in a Tuesday New York Times piece about the city’s subways using flywheels to capture energy from braking and use it for acceleration. Too bad the word “flywheel” is not used until paragraph 17. By my count, “flywheel” is word 692 out of a total of 892. Unless Slashdot and I are missing the point of this article, the reporter has gone to great lengths to precede the news with a discussion of what is not news. Paragraph 1 introduces the electricians of the subway as the story’s apparent topic. But paragraph 2 is wasted discussing subway jobs that do not involve electricity. Paragraph 7 describes the electricians’ working environment, mentioning whirring metal boxes and levitating ping-pong balls — everything that does not involve flywheels. Finally, paragraphs 12 and 13 discuss the problems with regenerative braking methods that do not use flywheels. Only in paragraph 17 do we finally discuss flywheels. If the reader is interested in this topic, the story then ends too soon, only six paragraphs later.

This story is a great example of what I think is a bad habit in writing, one that I’ll admit I have used when I did not try hard enough to figure out a better way to tell the story. I have sometimes written about what the news is not before what the news is when I was not interested enough in the subject matter on its own merits. This New York Times story would probably not spend several sentences discussing some questionably sexier subway jobs if the reporter thought the electricians had a sexy subway job. The writing in paragraphs 1 to 16 becomes a tacky ornament trying to prove why the topic will become interesting in paragraph 17. Paragraph 17 should be in paragraph 1 so the facts, which at least I genuinely find interesting, can speak for themselves.

The decent piece of new media storytelling I saw today is a Flash animation by MSNBC to accompany a story on the odds of asteroid collisions with the Earth (if the link doesn’t work for you, try it in Internet Explorer and see below). The animation of an asteroid and the Earth both orbiting the sun goes a long way toward showing viewers how an asteroid can have a more elliptical orbit than the Earth’s and a different orbital period but still cross paths with our planet. What might have been an even stronger use of new media, though, would have been a 3-D animation (especially if it had some kind interactive zoom/pan/tilt/roll/flythrough controls). That could have shown how some asteroids’ orbits are inclined away from the ecliptic plane. Of course, Flash is designed for 2-D animation, not 3-D, so I’ll cut MSNBC some slack on that point.

However, I won’t cut them some slack on the fact that this feature only works in Internet Explorer. “MSNBC is optimized for Microsoft Internet Explorer,” their site announces at the bottom of most pages. Putting aside the selfishness of this kind of proprietary “optimization” — let alone announcements of it — there is no excuse for completely incorrect HTML, even if it works in IE. I tried viewing this popup with Netscape 4 and Netscape 6, and in both of them the only contents of the window were:

<% mainsectionID="TECH" navsectionID="SPACE" %>

This, of course, is ASP code that is not being parsed and removed by MSNBC’s servers but is instead being embedded in the HTML sent to the visitor’s browser. It has not been parsed because someone has given the popup page a .htm extension rather than one of .asp, but left the ASP code in the file. Apparently IE is okay with this resulting garbage, but the extraneous code quite properly destroys the FRAMESET in Netscape, which means the Flash feature never loads. Does MSNBC’s “optimization” for IE mean they don’t even check whether attractive features of their site function in other browsers?

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This page last modified on Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 8:58 pm