2017 Excellence in Visual Digital Storytelling, Large Newsroom winner

Fragments of a Life: A Curbside Mystery

Deborah Acosta and Louise Story

The New York Times

Excellence in Visual Digital Storytelling, Large Newsroom


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About the Project

This story — an innovative piece of live journalism that broke new ground in its approach — began when New York Times journalist Deborah Acosta followed a trail of wind-blown photo slides to an abandoned trash bag filled with images. Acosta then embarked on a quest with The New York Times audience to figure out where the slides came from. What emerged was a story of life, love, and loss, carried out using participatory journalism in a new medium on Facebook. Acosta live-streamed her reporting throughout on Facebook, and then produced a video by culling from the footage and the audience comments. Coming full circle, that final piece was also streamed on Facebook along with a live audience Q&A.

This was the first time that a journalist investigated and solved a mystery, live, in real time, with the help of the audience. In making this piece, we created a new medium – live interactive journalism – in which the story is multi-dimensional. During the production of the final narrative, we asked audience members to send in recordings of themselves reading the comments they had made in writing while the videos were live. The voices heard throughout the piece are those of the actual commenters, not actors, thus creating an intimate three-way conversation between the journalist, the audience, and the subjects of the piece. By hearing their voices, the commenters are humanized beyond a text and image, and they more intimately become part of the story.

Through this project we were able to touch on a new form of journalism that allows the audience to deeply interact with a story from its very inception. And through this interaction, we harnessed the power of crowds to help us solve a mystery. The form also matched the subject matter. A crowdsourced approach to a narrative about a topic as universal as life, love, loss, and what we leave behind, gets at deeper truths than if the narrative had used a more traditional approach.

This piece is the first of its kind in its open nature and inclusion of the audience. In an era of media distrust and “fake news,” this is more important than ever. Instead of using a reporter’s notebook, Deborah Acosta used her cell phone and Facebook Live as the way to record information, providing unprecedented transparency into her reporting. The reporter’s notebook was on display live, and continues to be on display for the world to see in archived live-streams.

The finished narrative produced from those raw video notes brings together clear, concise writing, candid commentary from the journalist and from the audience, and touching interviews that get at a universal truth, all brought together through the use of a new journalistic tool.