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Engage Readers Through Interactive Storytelling

By Michael Lotti

By the time his session, “10 Laws of Interactive Storytelling” was about to end, Al Tomkins was only on Law #4. Why? He and his audience were having too much fun with the first three laws he introduced and with demonstrations of the “really cool websites” that he knows so much about.

Tomkins’ main point: Interactive storytelling creates better web traffic, more advertising dollars, and—most importantly—better journalism. “Whatever the future holds,” he said, “interactivity is the key” because the longer readers stay on a site, the easier it is to sell advertising space. And increasingly, readers expect interactivity. “The old model is ‘I talk, you listen.’ The new model is ‘Let’s all talk,’” said Tomkins. Content has to be geared to readers who can find and evaluate the material in whatever way they want.

Tomkins offered positive and negative examples. One positive example came from a Las Vegas newspaper team who did an exposé of sorts on poor medical care in local hospitals. The story they eventually filed was accompanied on the website by interactive maps and charts that allowed the reader to organize the data in multiple ways. The website also had all of the official documents they used for the story, complete with annotations and highlighting on the relevant sections. Moreover, the website had video and audio components to the story and places for readers to share their own stories of poor treatment in Las Vegas hospitals.

The negative example was, alas, from Minnesota Monthly. Tomkins pointed out the good interactive restaurant finding feature. But then he noted that when readers clicked on a restaurant’s name, they only got Minnesota Monthly’s review of the restaurant. “It would be much better if they allowed readers to share their own reviews and respond to each other,” he said.

The key takeaways from Tomkins’ presentation:

  • Interactive features = better journalism = a reputation that attracts readers.
  • Because it’s interactive, social media helps journalists find sources as well as communicate with their audience.
  • SEO is important. The majority of news-story hits come from search engines.
  • Interactive media allows people to interact with a story over a long period of time, which means that journalists can keep updating the story.

Tomkins is a former broadcast journalist who now teaches at the Poynter Institute, a St. Petersburg-based journalism school that offers classes to students of all ages, mostly via online courses. His email is