A Critique of “The Good Life: The Movement that Changed Maine”

In 2014 the Bangor Daily News  published “The Good Life,” a multimedia story about the back-to-the-land movement in Maine that won the Online Journalism Award for best small feature that year. Four staff writers collaborated on the project along with members of BDN’s video, web, and graphics teams. The story’s formatting and multimedia elements are clean and simple, which is fitting for the down-to-earth topic of self-sufficient living off the land.

Navigation

The project is organized into five chapters: Seed, Root, Bloom, Harvest, and Preserve.

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Each of the first four chapters is written by a different journalist and features photos and a video. The final chapter contains only a video and photo gallery.

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Although the story is best understood when read as a linear narrative, horizontal and vertical menus allow the reader to navigate freely between chapters and their subsections. The vertical menu also features icons to jump to the story credits and home page, plus a sound icon that plays or silences four original songs.

Audio

Upon first visiting the home page, the reader hears a looped track of crickets that launches by default. This natural sound accompanies a short written introduction to the project.

In the next four chapters, the original songs do not play automatically, but only after clicking on the sound icon. However, these chapters have header images that when clicked will play videos featuring the songs. Unfortunately there is nothing to indicate that the header images are videos. One could read the entire piece without realizing that content is there, or discover it accidentally through a random click.

Video

The one video that readers cannot miss launches after a photo gallery in the last chapter. It features shots of a couple participating in a church contradance combined with interview footage. This scene resonates with the audience because it shows homesteaders connecting with the mainstream community and dancing to live music, which Mindy McAdams points out in a blog article helps to convey a sense of the experience at an event.

Photos

Still photos serve the piece throughout by enhancing the story being told in the text. In many instances people who are introduced in the narrative are simultaneously featured in the background photos.

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These images help encapsulate off-the-grid living for the latter half of the twentieth century.

Infographics & Maps

Data visualization is used to present population growth percentages, changing property costs, and the total number of farms in Maine over the years. The population infographic includes a simple map highlighting certain counties in Maine.

Text Formatting

The writers do an excellent job of chunking the story’s text throughout the project. Chapters are broken up into subsections that have clear subheadings. Each of these sections of text appears on a light powder blue page that moves across a background of changing photos as you scroll through the story. The paragraphs are very short, about one to two sentences on average, which helps make the information digestible.

One of the reasons chunking is so essential to this story is that there were so many different sources interviewed. Rather than follow a few homesteaders throughout the piece and go into a lot of detail, the journalists were more ambitious in showing readers the bigger picture of different generations of people involved in the movement. As such the project provides snapshots of the lives of many families. If these individual stories had been strung together in larger bodies of text, readers would have likely become overwhelmed.

Interactivity

Opportunities for the audience to interact with this web project are minimal, and according to McAdams in “(Re)defining Multimedia Journalism,” that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Clicking links in the story, such as one that leads to the website for the Good Life Center at Forest Farm, navigating through chapters and photo galleries, and playing videos are about the extent of the interaction. But this choice seems like it was purposeful.

It’s hard to imagine a story describing people trying to farm and build houses without the use of electric and gas-powered tools being told in a format that includes interactive games and flashy graphics. It would seem unnatural.

Social Media

From the credits page at the end of the project, readers are offered a link to the comment section on BDN‘s website.

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Here they can log in using their credentials for various social media accounts to join the conversation.

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There are also buttons to share and like the project on Facebook, or to share it via Reddit, Twitter, and Google+. In addition, an icon to “Tweet” the story appears throughout the project.

Overall, “The Good Life” is an example of multimedia journalism that includes just the right amount of interactivity and graphic elements for its message. Rather than cluttering up the piece with unnecessary features, the editorial team allowed the narrative, photos, and videos of these pioneers to speak for themselves. Information graphics and links were used sparingly where they served the story. There was little redundancy in the different forms of media, and the visuals were attention-grabbing.

While the project was well thought out and executed, it was not without flaws. The user experience was poor in that there were no instructions on how to access the video content in the first four chapters. In addition, there were no captions provided next to photos to identify their subjects, because these individuals were introduced in the hidden videos.

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