Storytelling tools to reach low-literate readers

by Ritvvij Parrikh
Oct 30, 2018 in Digital Journalism

This post is the second piece in an ongoing series on how newsrooms can expand their audience by using new storytelling techniques. Read part one.

The previous post explained why it’s important that journalists use storytelling tools to create more visual rather than text-heavy narratives, so as to better serve the needs of low-literate readers.

This is a particularly important issue in a country like India, where I work with a team of ICFJ Knight Fellows, and where internet use among low-literate audiences (who are mostly reading the news online, via inexpensive phones with low bandwidth) is growing apace.

That said, what kind of criteria should programmers use when creating these visual storytelling tools for journalists? I would suggest the following (in order of importance):

  • Whether your storytelling tool is clean and user-friendly.  

  • Your tool should work in multiple languages.

  • When testing your tool’s user experience, prioritize how it works on mobile above all else.

  • Your tool should be SEO-friendly. Otherwise, it’s going to be that much harder for journalists to learn that it exists and that they can use it.

  • Your tool should load quickly on low-end phones using 2G or 3G bandwidth (after all, that’s the audience that journalists should be trying to attract).

  • Finally, your tool should integrate with as many distribution platforms as possible — desktop internet, mobile internet, Google AMP, Facebook Instant Articles and so on.

Below are four visual storytelling tools that the ICFJ Knight Fellows are experimenting with in India:

1. toQuiz

A quiz can be a fun and engaging way to inform readers, rather than trying to communicate information via a giant chunk of text. Think of it as a way to “gamify” content and to repackage news material into a format that’s familiar from school. Try out the demo here.

2. toExplain

For long stories, journalists sometimes assume that their readers already know the context. However, that may not necessarily be true for low-literate readers or first-time digital readers. toExplain is a simple question-answer card that journalists can use to highlight key background info across various stories.

For example, a story about China’s economic policy could include a toExplain card giving background information such as, “What is One Belt One Road?” That same card could be reused across multiple articles — say, another story about global infrastructure or breaking business news. Here's the demo.

3. toTimeline

Do you want to tell your readers how a certain story unfolded over a certain period of time? Northwestern University Knight Lab's TimelineJS is the best tool for that on the market.

However, readers in India (or other countries in the Global South) primarily consume news on low-end mobile phones over low-bandwidth networks. TimelineJS does not offer the most effective user experience for such devices. Hence, we built toTimeline. Try the demo here.

4. toSocial

Readers take a fraction of a second to decide whether or not it’s worth clicking on a story that appears in their social media feed. Not everyone is going to take that time to consider whether the article that interests them is coming from a credible news source or not.

toSocial is meant to help readers make more informed decisions about their social media reading habits. The tool lets you superimpose your newsroom’s logo and a story genre (e.g. breaking news, opinion, analysis, wire copy, etc.) over the cover image of your story so readers know what the article is about. Here's the demo.

Can I use these tools?


All of these tools are provided via a platform we’re calling ProtoGraph. Using these storytelling tools is as simple as filling out a form and pressing publish. Once published, you get an iFrame embed code that is:

  • Mobile-friendly: Each of these tools were designed to be mobile first.

  • Fast-loading: All of these tools load fast. Individually, each tool scores 90+ out of 100 on Google's Page Speed tool.

  • Responsive

  • SEO-friendly: All of these tools are SEO-friendly — that is, the content you write on toTimeline or toQuiz is SEO crawlable.

  • Can be used for AMP: There is also a native iFrame embed code available for use in AMP pages.

Frequently asked questions

Are these tools free?

Yes. Development of these tools is sponsored by the International Center for Journalists. Hosting is sponsored by Pykih.

What do I need to get started?

After a trial period, users receiving heavy traffic will be expected to pay for their own traffic. They will have to register with Amazon Web Services - Cloudfront CDN. We can assist you setup the CDN.

How can I integrate toSocial images with my CMS?

You can integrate your CMS with our API, or simply download the images manually and add them to your CMS.

Who is currently using these tools?

Some are currently live with some of India’s largest news sites - MoneyControl,, and NewsLaundry, among others.

Are the tools multilingual?

They currently work in English and Hindi. If your publication is in another language, let us know at We are happy to tweak the tool for you.

Where do I have to enroll?

Publishers for all sizes are eligible to use these tools. Register at and we will reach out to you on a first-come, first-serve basis to onboard you.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Asian Development Bank.