The Best Online Storytelling and Journalism of 2014

30 amazing, immersive journalism projects that caught my attention in 2014

Josh Stearns


Each year I post a round-up of the best online journalism of the year. Below you will find links to more than 30 amazing, immersive journalism projects that caught my attention in 2014. But, each year my readers augment the list with their own favorites, so please add yours (*updates will be marked with an asterisk).

In 2012, the list included a lot of stunning visuals and designs that wove together text, audio, images and videos. That year, many of the innovations focused on how stories could be displayed online (think Snow Fall). In 2013, the projects tended to be more data driven and participatory.

This year new digital tools and networks seemed to influence every aspect of the storytelling process. From sensors to structured journalism, crowdsourcing to podcasting, new modes of journalism that have been emerging over the last decade took huge strides forward this year. Communities of practice grew up around new models of storytelling to formalize norms, grapple with ethical and technical questions and tackle issues of sustainability.

Unlike past lists, this year I’m grouping stories around key themes. I’ve also included new organizations and storytelling strategies in addition to great individual stories. Please add your own favorites in the comments or make the case for other trends you think defined online storytelling in 2014.

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1) The Year Audio Went Viral

There was one story that didn’t fit well in my categories, but was also impossible to not include in my round-up this year: Serial. If you only listened to Serial then you missed a lot of great aspects of the story which were only available on the podcast’s website in blog posts, source documents, maps and more. Serial got so popular, so quick, Slate even created a meta podcast about the podcast.

But Serial is only part of a larger story about the resurgence of podcasts as digital audio gets woven deeply into the web, mobile phones and car radios. *See for example Treasured Island , by Aljazeera America, in which audio is overlayed on top of text and underlayed behind stunning photos. (Thanks to @PamelaDAngelo1 for the tip).

2014 was also the year that Alex Blumberg created an addictive podcast about launching his new start-up (which produces podcasts). It was also the year that the podcast network Radiotopia raised $620,000 on Kickstarter, promising to reinvent public radio. There were so many good stories from the podcasts that make up Radiotopia this year that I couldn’t pick just one — go, listen, subscribe and support them.

2) Telling Stories With Sensors and Satellites

When I asked my followers on Twitter what stories they thought were the most stunning examples of online journalism this year, the number one response was Losing Ground, a collaboration between The Lens in New Orleans and ProPublica (read more below). But Losing Ground was just one of a number of stories this year that used satellite imagery and other kinds of sensors in creative ways throughout their reporting. Also, importantly, new research this year from the Tow Center at Columbia University helped provide a baseline of information for those who want to use sensors in their journalism. (Disclosure: I contributed a chapter to that research). Finally, Google created an amazing interactive on one specific satellite which is poised to “become citizen science’s first spacecraft, with data accessible by everyone.”

Losing Ground — The Lens and ProPublica

The team used a mix of great local reporting paired with striking satellite imagery and historical maps to show the pace of change on the Louisiana coastline. Weaving together personal stories from people who have watched their communities literally disappear, the projects illustrates that deep connection between land and people in vivid ways. (Be sure to also catch part two, which focuses on coastline restoration efforts.)

A Rogue State Along Two Rivers — The New York Times

Using satellite imagery of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers the New York Times traces the emergence of ISIS as a powerful force in Iraq and Syria. Whereas this story is often told within the confines of borders, the natural landscape provides a more apt guide for this story. The project is also literally a map of the Times’ reporting on ISIS, linking back and organizing pieces not by chronology but by geography. (While quite different, this Times piece on the Mars Curiosity’s 28 month journey is also terrific.)

Disappearing Rio Grande — The Texas Tribune

Colin McDonald traced the path of a very different river in the Texas Tribune’s investigation of the human and ecological impact of the Rio Grande as it slowly dries up. Using GPS data loggers, maps and photos McDonald chronicles his journey through a changing ecosystem and a shifting culture around water in the west. (For a different kind of sensor-focused project on water issues, check out Eyes on the Rise from Florida International University which is working with high school and college students at the intersection of citizen science and civic journalism.)

A Nation Divided — Zeit

screenshot of the Zeit homepage

In honor of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall Zeit put together a terrific report on the longstanding impact of a divided Germany, past and present. The story uses satellite imagery, aerial images and even a photos from the International Space Station. However it is the way that Zeit marries these elements with data journalism and visualizations that really offers a profound look at a nation split in two.

Snohomish County Mudslide Reporting — The Seattle Times

After a massive landslide in Washington State, local reporters not only used maps and satellite imagery to show the world what had happened, but also to reveal a number of early warnings that had gone ignored. With smart interactives, sliders of aerial “laser maps” and more, the Seattle Times team used a wide array of tools to help people understand the complex geography that led to the disaster.

Demolished — NPR

Set up like a slide show — but with multiple layers of photographs, maps, and words — this NPR story actually has no audio at all. Aerial maps from the U.S. Geological Survey punctuate the narrative helping place the story of one girl from Chicago’s public housing in a city that is grappling with changes in housing, demographics and land use. (For more from NPR’s Look At This series, see “A Photo I Love.” And if you missed NPR’s useful and beautiful music or books apps, check them out. *After publication, @DianaElbasha pointed me towards NPR’s Borderland series, a lovely exploration of the border’s impact on so many lives)

3) Get The Picture? Graphic Journalism in 2014

I’ve mentioned the rise of illustrated or graphic journalism in past round-ups, but there were enough great pieces produced this year that it seemed worth highlighting again. For the Center for Investigative Reporting’s incredible series on teen solitary confinement, Solitary Lives, they partnered with Medium for a series of articles with illustrations on the site. However, they also created a video and a graphic novel. The story also ran as part of the new investigative journalism podcast Reveal.

Aljazeera America created a print comic book, Terms of Service, about a very digital topic: privacy, security and big data. In addition, they released the tool they created so others could create graphic journalism like this. The Parable of the Polygons is not like the other graphic journalism projects featured here. It is more a game, or as the creators call it, “a playable post” that explores bias and segregation.

4) Immersive Stories on Health and the Environment

An astounding number of powerful online stories in 2014 grappled with health and environmental issues facing communities around the globe. These stories used an array of media to bring the stories of wounded soldiers, gas drillers, and migrant farmers to us in ways that gave us a more direct experience of their struggles. Notably, four major investigations this year looked at how the new oil and gas boom, spurred by fracking, is reshaping American communities. Time and again, these stories show how the magic of the web can help do better journalism, and build deep empathy.

Downside of the Boom and Where Oil and Politics Mix — New York Times

In these long pieces on the impact of fracking and the gas boom in rural North Dakota, the NY Times uses huge interstitial full page photos and video between the text. Data animations and satellite imagery show the growth of oil drills across the state and the location of spills and accidents.

The Shale Life — Texas Tribune

Tracing how the new oil and gas boom is hitting home in Texas, the Texas Tribune uses a unique grid of images as a entry point for its reporting. Each block on the grid takes readers to short profiles and videos from different parts of the state, paired with demographic data and statistics on farming and drilling.

Screenshot of The Shale Life from the Texas Tribune

The Great Frack Forward — Mother Jones

Mother Jones looks at how the fracking model being pioneered in the United States is being translated to China. In a five part multimedia report, as part of their Climate Desk collaboration, Mother Jones combines illustrations and animations with great video.

Faces of Fracking — Grist

The Faces of Fracking project weaves together photos, text and audio to create great profiles of people in California whose lives are being shaped by fracking. However, it is their terrific data visualization combined with these stories that helps connect the dots.

The Secret Casualties of Iraq’s Abandoned Chemical Weapons — New York Times

C.J. Chivers’ investigation into the undisclosed impact of chemical weapons disposal on U.S. soldiers and Iraqi police would be powerful in any form, but the Times team paired it with video clips, poignant photos, smart interactive maps and graphics.

Dark Side of the Strawberry — Center for Investigative Reporting

The Center for Investigative Reporting’s package of videos, interactives and reporting on the human and environmental dangers of California’s pesticide leaves you looking at all the produce on your grocery store shelves differently. CIR’s accompanying video (narrated by Roman Mars) helps capture the scope of the problem and their data apps let people find out if they live near fields where pesticides are used.

*Murray’s Problem — Journal Sentinel

I missed this in my first round, but the Journalism Sentinel team did a great job tackling a complex medical story and making it deeply human. The videos, intimate photos, and graphics help readers understand something many of them will never experience: paralysis. (Thanks to @GregJBorowski for the tip)

*Chemical Archive — Center for Public Integrity

CPI staffer @floorcharts wrote in to point my attention to this massive and ongoing project digging into the petrochemical industry spent millions sponsoring science that minimized the dangers of the carcinogen benzene. The reporting is based on a huge cache of documents that are searchable and illustrated with useful timelines and graphics.

5) A Big Year for Crowdsourcing and Eyewitness Media

The term crowdsourcing is nearly 10 years old, but in 2014 crowdsourcing in journalism took a few big steps forward. Right at the end of 2013 user generated content and eyewitness media got a boost when Storyful was purchased by News Corp (my take here). In Syria Shattered Storyful worked with the Wall Street Journal for a three part series weaving together incredible before and after pictures, poignant original video and eyewitness video sourced from YouTube users. The cumulative effect serves to bring readers closer to the people and the streets of Syria in a way that feels immediate and urgent. (See also this mini-documentary on surviving an ISIS massacre from the New York Times, which blends original reporting and eyewitness video as well. Read more about both these stories on Storyful’s blog.)

Another project that began in 2013 was MuckRock’s Drone Census crowdsourced FOIA effort which partnered with Motherboard at Vice to “write the book on domestic drones” in 2014. Since then, 2014 has seen the launch of Bellingcat (see especially this post), Grasswire and First Look Media’s social media newsroom Reportedly, helmed by Andy Carvin. Columbia University’s Tow Center also released a report, helping to establish best practices around the use of crowdsourced content in journalism.

Reddit’s liveblog reporting tool was piloted with a crowdsourced reporting effort around the Ukrainian conflict in the first part of 2014. At the time Mathew Ingram at GigaOm called it “A rough approximation of something interesting.” By the end of the year many people were pointing to the Reddit liveblog of the Occupy Central Civil Disobedience Movement (Umbrella Revolution) as one of the best sources for real time updates. Finally, don’t miss the Year in Human Rights Videos from WITNESS, curators of the human rights channel on YouTube.

6) Structuring Journalism For Context

One of the most interesting sessions at the Online News Association conference this year was “From Data to Audience: Structured Journalism and Modern Narratives” in which the panelists explored how the fundamental elements of stories can be collected, organized, presented and reused (by journalists or members of the community) through unique story-driven databases. Read more about structured journalism here and here. This is a form truly born of the web, and the early results are very exciting.

Circa is one of the best examples of structured journalism (read more about Circa’s strategy here and here). In 2014, the new local newsroom Billy Penn adopted a similar structured journalism approach. At Billy Penn stories are umbrellas that connect a number of different entities, such as embedded tweets, YouTube videos, links, maps and even other articles.

But it is also a practice that is still very much emerging, “We are working really hard to build a vocabulary around because while the ideas seem really simple,” said Laura Amico at the panel, “what I have found is that we really lack the words.” And while we saw a range of exciting new structured journalism projects emerge this year, we also saw Homicide Watch DC, a site run by Laura and Chris Amico, close its doors.

Ballot Watch — Frontline

The project is a deep dive into four key laws that are shaping and reshaping American’s access to the ballot box. The data that the team collected and organized gives people state by state information and helped power a series of critical national reports from Frontline.

The N-Word — Washington Post

A stunning series of video interviews and conversations explore the history of the n-word, “its evolution and its place in American vernacular today.” Each of the clips is coded so that people can select themes to compile their own mini documentaries, mixing and remixing the interviews for different perspectives and angles on the n-word. (I’m also partial to this other interactive by the Washington Post focused on the 20 key findings about CIA interrogations.)

Emergent — Craig Silverman

Emergent is not one story but rather a new site tracking many, many stories (or perhaps, more accurately, tracking rumors in stories across the web). The site uses a data driven, structured journalism approach that pairs data, algorithms and human curation. It’s part of Silverman’s research at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University on “how unverified information and rumor are reported in the media.”

Card Stacks — Vox

Vox’s card stacks are one of the best visual representations of structured journalism. An article about the stacks describes them this way: “The card metaphor came after the founding team started playing with the idea of what it means to provide context to the news… Wherever someone is on, a swipeable card stack can pop up to annotate what is on that page with contextual information typically sourced from previous stories.” The idea is catching on, but Craig Silverman (of the previously mentioned discussed the potential and the challenges of this new structure.

Slide from presentation by @fst, @thomnagy, @herrhorn

7) A Web of Many Languages — Multilingual Multimedia Storytelling

The Internet has given us a lot of amazing tools to tell stories in new ways, but one development we don’t focus on enough is how digital journalism can literally speak in new ways to new audiences. The ability to toggle back and forth between languages, to have multiple languages side by side or even dynamically swapping them, holds huge potential. A few stories in 2014 combined innovative online storytelling with multilingual reporting to great effect.

Folha de Sao Paulo’s Battle of Belo Monte project is a deep dive into Brazil’s largest infrastructure project ever, a hydroelectric plant. The piece combines a huge number of videos, pictures and infographics in Portuguese and English and also includes a tablet app that lets you fly over the dam. The Guardian created an interactive documentary they called a “Global Guide to the First World War” in seven languages: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Arabic or Hindi. And the European Journalism Center funded a great investigative report on “The Dark Side of the Italian Tomato,” publishing it in English, Spanish, Italian and French in partnership with a number of media outlets.

In addition to these national and international publications, small local digital newsrooms are putting an emphasis on multilingual reporting. New Brunswick Today, in New Jersey, publishes online in English and Spanish, as well as prints a monthly bilingual newspaper. In southern California, Alhambra Source is experimenting with the Chinese social media site Weibo in their journalism (and helping local policymakers and police learn to use it as well). Alhambra Source regularly reports in English, Mandarin and Spanish.

*After publication Sisi Wei wrote to tip me off to ProPublica’s excellent “Inside the Firewall.” She writes, “The entire app is built in two languages, English and Chinese,” and it automatically adjusts based on your browser. In addition, Patrick Rösing pointed me towards Otto’s Journey, which is published in German and English. The interactive travelogue follows Gunther Holtorf’s two decade journey around the world. The piece draws on 30 hours of video and 8000 photos from the 215 countries and regions he has traveled through. It is a reminder of how wonderful travel writing can be on the web.

What would you add? Every year readers help me add to my list, please leave me a comment with your thoughts and additions.

(Thanks to @digiphile @morisy @DavidClinchNews @raju @story_bench @kristastevens @MBridegam @jqg @parapraxist @zeynep @shinchpearson @eyeseast @LauraNorton @becca_aa @aleszubajak @meghannCIR @mkramer @kleinmatic @Sulliview @anto_l for their nominations, suggestions and discussion which contributed to this list)



Josh Stearns

Senior Director, Public Square Program at the Democracy Fund. Journalism and democracy of, by and for the people. Formerly: @grdodge @freepress