2014 Excellence in Visual Digital Storytelling, Small Newsroom winner



Elaine McMillion Sheldon

Hollow Interactive

Excellence in Visual Digital Storytelling, Small Newsroom


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About the Project

In 2009, as a reporter at the Charleston Daily Mail, I came across a document by West Virginia University’s Business & Economics College that documented the “dying and revived” towns of the state. A set of numbers caught my eye: all 10 incorporated towns in McDowell County were on the “dying list.” These towns were losing population at such an alarming rate that demographers predicted they would eventually not exist. Growing up next door to McDowell, I found this very startling. What does it mean that we, as a society, allow places to die? What is lost with the death of these places? How many places all across our nation are experiencing the same loss?

In 2011, I visited McDowell with the idea that Hollow would be a linear film that would document rural brain drain in America. However, within a couple hours of being in McDowell, I knew that this story could not be wrapped up into a 75-minute film. This was a story that needed to be told by an entire community, not by one filmmaker. This is a project that needed to data, photography, video, soundscapes and user-generated content to provide a rich experience. A linear film, with a clear beginning and end, signified that there is an end to this story. But in my opinion, the ending is not clear for small-town America. Instead I believe we can use new media to say that this story is just beginning and that now is the time to get involved.

The motivation to increase community efficacy and ignite change, paired with the idea that this is a story that evolves over time, pushed us into exploring non-linear and online storytelling. During the summer of 2012, I trained nearly 20 residents how to capture their own stories and interviewed around 75 residents myself. Being a native of West Virginia, it was very important that we presented a more nuanced picture of a place that is so often misrepresented. By getting residents involved with the media production, they were able to reclaim their story.

THE LA TIMES wrote: “Appalachian stories are often oversimplified and stereotypical. The simple statistics of drug abuse, obesity and other problems often create a narrow, impersonal picture. McMillion encountered too many stories of hope and pride to craft such a bleak ‘black and white’ picture. She wanted to challenge preconceptions and create a more authentic view that included the day-to-day human stories of McDowell County. Hollow bridges that gap between the storyteller and the audience. The project is practically a living, breathing thing; viewers can subscribe for updates on individual people. Such connections create insight and understanding.”

Since launching at we have attracted over 121,000 individual viewers from over 150 countries. We have held 46 from Appalachian colleges to film festivals in New York City and Amsterdam. We have been recognized and won awards from the 2013 Peabody Awards, SXSW Interactive, World Press Photo Multimedia Awards and the International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam, among others.

Grant Scott, a jury for the World Press Photo Awards shared why he chose Hollow for 3rd Prize in the Interactive Documentary category: “Some of the most impressive elements of Hollow are the depth of the content, the richness of the content. The characters that are portrayed are totally believable and I think it’s these small stories told in a big way…it’s not a large production piece but it has that feeling, it feels very much as if it was created by people who care about the subject that they are documenting.”

The Huffington Post wrote on our launch day: “Anyone who saw promise for the future of web-based journalism after watching/reading The New York Times’ highly innovative ‘Snowfall’ will positively be drawn to the work produced at Hollow. It is next level. It’s maybe the most magnificently presented, web-aware journalism I’ve ever seen. But more important than the visual achievement is what it does — documenting the lives of people who live in a mostly ignored rural community, far from the traditional media bastions and bubbles.”

While the project has spread all across the nation and globe, it continues to make impact on the ground.

Erica Lucas (young person running for city council):

“I wanted to let you know that Hollow had inspired me to be that change and I am running for Welch City Council! I hope to bring new ideas and help out our community.”

Elaine LaCaria (local businesswoman who is trying to expose police brutality):

“You have no idea how you guys motivated us to quit taking their status quo and the impact your team has made here politically. We are going to take our county back and our political offices and our police and emergency medical personnel and hold them accountable.”

Renee Bolden (local historian):

“I’m not sure I can explain the hope and sense of community that Hollow has inspired. Hollow has given McDowell County the voice that we have never had before, and an opportunity to be seen as a people who have overcame great obstacles and keep going.”

The stories of this community have been able to reach people all across the globe through the use of exploratory technology and have empowered the people in this community to start thinking about their future. And while this is the story of one place, it is a story that many towns can relate to all across our nation and world.

I believe that Hollow as an interactive documentary, where people are actively controlling the narrative and having an impact through their presence on the site, has a much greater chance of inspiring social change than a linear film. I can’t even imagine Hollow as anything other than a new media and online project. It is suited to push the limits of tech-driven storytelling and combine personal stories, geography, user-generated content and social media to inspire change.