Soundwalk Tenderloin

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!