Nearly two years ago, my boss suggested that I turn myself into a story.
I was halfway through a grueling round of experimental treatment for hepatitis C, a potentially fatal liver disease I contracted as an infant. My experience had all the trappings of compelling journalism. There was a simple central tension — girl versus virus — and a simple, central question: Will she be cured? Plus, HCV is a sweeping, under-reported epidemic with the potential to cost billions of dollars and millions of lives.
The journalist in me knew all this was newsworthy, but it was Concord Monitor Editor Felice Belman who urged me to use myself as a source.
Over lunch one day, she sketched out her idea: a heavily researched, first-person narrative told in short, serial installments. The piece would explore the epidemic, the idea of medical research on humans and the reasons why so few people know about a virus that affects four times as many Americans as AIDS.
It was an ambitious project for many reasons. For starters, I felt awful. Antiviral medication can cause brutal side effects, and keeping up with my normal workload was already a struggle. Plus, the Monitor’s newsroom is small, and the demands on our time seem to grow every day.
The research and writing took months longer than expected, but we finished the project, called “My Epidemic,” last December. Each day for a week, we published a new chapter in print and online, and used social media to promote the series and to invite feedback.
The result was a profound reminder of the power of storytelling and an illustration of the potential for new media to allow our stories to live on.
Lesson 1: Share your story in a way that works for both print and online.
Yes, journalism has changed, but narrative is still effective, especially if it’s structured to work in print and online. We picked a serial format for reasons both practical and organic. The ups and downs and cliffhangers inherent in serial narratives mimic the reality of living with a chronic disease.
In print, multiple chapters were also easier to place in a tight news hole, and we had multiple opportunities to find space for graphics and photos. Online, each chapter gave us another chance to invite readers into the story through Facebook and Twitter, and to promote HCV resources we’d assembled on our website.
The project was a boon for online traffic. Visits to our website shot up 12 percent compared to December 2009 — by far the largest month-to-month increase in recent memory.
To read more, click here.
Photo by edward olive fotógrafo de boda, Creative Commons Attribution License