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Storytelling at the scene of the (insert news event here)

By Steve Outing

I’m always on the lookout for innovative digital tools for news storytelling, so the recently released smartphone app Detours caught my eye. It’s not designed for news, but rather for location-specific guided walking tours; users pay for and play an audio- and GPS-based guided tour of an offbeat or tourist area, listening on earbuds or headphones for walking instructions and information about things they see on the “guided tour.” The app also shows visual content occasionally (such as contextual historical photos).

The concept is simple enough: Just recall when you were in a museum and rented headsets for an auto-guided audio tour of the exhibits. Now replace those headsets with your own phone and a pair of earbuds, and the Detours app. Now you can take museum-like guided audio tours outside, in tourist spots around the world. (Well, for now it’s just a few interesting spots in San Francisco, where Detours is based, but more tours are promised.)

Detours has a great concept, and I can see myself purchasing a guided audio tour when I’m visiting a new city.

But I’m more intrigued by the on-location news storytelling possibilities here, mostly for “evergreen” stories which hold long-term interest for most people, but also occasionally for breaking news. I’m talking about news that is experienced after the fact, at the location of the past or recent news event.

For example, if I’m visiting Beijing and head to Tiananmen Square, I might want a guided audio news tour that “showed me around” the area and informed me of the details of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, including details of news events and where they took place physically (such as the site of the infamous Chinese tank running over a student protester). Sure, I’d want some historical context as well, but if my primary interest was “what happened here in 1989 when the Chinese government cracked down hard on student dissidents?”, then I might prefer a news guided tour produced by, say, Time.com than a tourism-oriented audio tour produced by Detour or a travel publisher like Rough Guides.

This kind of storytelling could be ideal for some news organizations. Let’s imagine that the New York Times develops an app that offers location-specific audio/GPS/multimedia “tours” for important news events that have occurred over the years, as well as new big news events that come up. If you have this app on your phone (or some wearable-tech device, like an Apple Watch), if you were:

  • In the vicinity of Zuccotti Park, located in New York City’s Wall Street financial district, you might get an alert that an audio story or tour is available to learn about Occupy Wall Street and the events that took place in 2011.
  • At or passing by the 49th Street subway station, an alert might let you know that this is where Ki-Suck Han was pushed onto the subway tracks in 2012 and was crushed by an arriving train, resulting in a controversial New York Post front-page photo of the doomed man.
  • And if you were in the World Trade Center area, you might be alerted to the availability of a number of location-specific news guides/tours about the 9/11 terrorist attacks — from a tour of locations specific to the events of that day, to a tour about the process of building the 9/11 memorial or the recently completed Freedom Tower.

Detours has a business model that holds promise (but of course has yet to be tested): Users of the app can pay $4.99 for an individual audio guided tour, or pay an annual subscription of $19.99 to access any of the tours the company has produced for a single city.

What might a news variation look like? Perhaps the hypothetical New York Times location-news app charges 99 cents for each at-location guide/tour, or $19.99 buys unlimited access to all of the New York City news tours that the Times produces. There could be free-to-users location news tours, supported by sponsors: e.g., an audio guided tour located at Battery Park in lower Manhattan might cover the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy to the area and rebuilding efforts; the sponsor might be GEICO Insurance.

This form of location-specific content when applied to news probably doesn’t represent a huge money-making opportunity, but let’s stay open to the possibilities. It could create a decent revenue stream from archive content already in a news organization’s possession. For new major news events, location-specific mobile tours/guides could be another (revenue-producing) channel for reconfigured news based on reporting done for other channels (such as a news website or mobile-news service). Think of it as an element of “transmedia journalism,” where different facets of a single story are presented in different media formats.

What do you think? Is location-specific content like that produced by Detour worth pursuing in the context of journalism? Let me know in the comments below. …

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!

6 Responses to "Storytelling at the scene of the (insert news event here)"

  1. Mark Potts
    Mark Potts 2 years ago .Reply

    Very interesting app, and good way to reuse older content that can illuminate the local area for visitors (or locals).

  2. Jill Maxwell
    Jill Maxwell 2 years ago .Reply

    Yes – awesome idea! During and after a big event, like our flooding last year, people want to learn more and it would be great to have many journalists showing multiple perspectives, rather than the repeated footage usually show over and over and over…

  3. Gina
    Gina 2 years ago .Reply

    Really interesting concept with clear possibilities for ‘passive’ income for news orgs.

  4. Ben Adair (@benadair)

    Hey Steve – Ben Adair here. I’m the head of content for Detour and these are exactly the types of applications that we get really excited abt. Later this year, we’re hoping to release Descript, our location / audio editor, to the public so that anyone can build Detours of their own. I’ve been really amazed by all the different ideas people are already having.

    Meantime, if you or your readers ever come to SF, please lmk so we can make sure they take at least one Detour. It’s a very singular, amazing way to experience stories and places.

  5. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 2 years ago .Reply

    Ben: Thanks for your comment. I’m struggling with what to call these stories that are meant to be consumed at a specific geographic location. I see that you call Detours “audio walks.” If you (or anyone else) produced a news Detour, say about damage and reconstruction of a beach town destroyed by a recent hurricane, what would you call it?

    I think we need a name or phrase that we can agree on for news stories that are meant to be heard/viewed/experienced at the news event’s location. Any ideas?

  6. Irina
    Irina 2 years ago .Reply

    The app is very interesting. Though, I think it can’t be called news because news are new or breaking the moment we consume them. What you are describing is older news (older stories) or actually the concept of history. So, you might call such an app Open-Air Museum or Location-Based Stories.

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