Amanda HirschFreelance writer Amanda Hirsch, former editorial director of PBS Interactive, blogs about documentaries and the Web in her weekly column, Outside the Frame.
How do you capture the character of a place?

For all the online city guides and Google Map mash-ups out there showing who’s doing what and where they’re doing it — angeldog just bought a bagel, joebob31 just crossed state lines — there aren’t a lot of websites that really explore the essence of a place. Such a portrait requires deep knowledge and strong feelings on the part of the artist — you need to know what you’re talking about, and you need to care enough (whether you love the place, or hate it) to infuse your portrait with perspective, to charge it with life.

To create a compelling portrait of a place, you also need to know about and be interested in the people who live there. A new web series from The New York Times called One in 8 Million aims to bring no less iconic a place than New York City to life online, through the stories of “New York characters” — a corner druggist, a subway busker, a type A teenager. We encounter these New Yorkers through carefully paced slideshows of black and white photography, accompanied by intimate first-person audio. The result is a compelling collection of stories that left me reflecting on the sides of New York I hadn’t encountered in my dozens of journeys there.

A New Yorker stands in front of a shop

From One in 8 Million, photo by Todd Heisler/The New York Times

The series is striking a chord with visitors — or, as the series producers refer to them, “viewers.” (I found the word choice interesting, since I typically associate viewers with television.) I was curious to hear how a multimedia series like this originates at an organization like The New York Times, and wanted to know about the thinking behind the series’ aesthetic approach. I also wondered how they chose who to profile, and whether there were plans to add interactivity to the series (I hoped so). I caught up with the producers, Sarah Kramer and Lexi Mainland, over email; here’s an edited transcript of our discussion.

Tell me about the project’s origins. How did you come up with the idea? Also, what division of produces work like this? Are you on a team charged with multimedia production in particular, or…?

The two of us came up with the idea for this project together last winter. Sarah is a multimedia producer who works in a small pod of audio and interactive journalists and Lexi is a producer embedded on the Metro news desk. Both of us have been involved in creating companion multimedia to print stories running in the Metro section of the newspaper, and we imagined creating a signature series of standalone multimedia features for the Web, based around New York. The city was at our front door. As one native New Yorker (Sarah) and one New York convert (Lexi), we could think of a whole slew of people we wanted to start talking to, not to mention the legions we’d never met.

Audio paired with photos seemed like the richest and most intimate way to convey first-person narratives, and since we both came to The Times from documentary backgrounds in radio, video and the Web — Sarah from StoryCorps and Lexi from WGBH — we have a shared sensibility for the kind of stories you see in One in 8 Million. Likewise, it was such a simple and straightforward idea that the newspaper editors on the Metro desk to whom we originally pitched the series were immediately able to see the possibilities for this kind of multimedia, even though they are accustomed to storytelling in print.

How do you choose who to profile?
We keep our eyes and ears open as we move around the city, for starters. One of the producers on the project, Josh Brustein, recently got stuck on the subway and struck up a conversation with a fellow commuter who, it turned out, collects guns and is an avid marksman. “Stuck on the subway” turned into drinks, which turned to an animated conversation about this man’s passion — and a One in 8 profile was born. You’ll see this piece in coming weeks.

Apart from chance encounters, we’re constantly combing through our own ideas, taking suggestions from around The Times and emails we receive from viewers. We’re looking for good talkers who have never been featured in The Times before and who have something a little mysterious about them — maybe an element of surprise in a story they have to tell, or in their identity — that distinguishes them.

An African American woman in black and white

From One in 8 Million, photo by Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Even though we are by no means attempting to present an exhaustive cross-section of New Yorkers, we are looking for diversity — people in all boroughs and with many points of view. We both have a great affinity for stories about old-time, crusty New Yorkers, and our viewers seem to have the same affinity; still, we’re trying to resist doing too many pieces in this vein, because it is only one strand of New York, and other outlets have done some great series organized around this theme already. One example is the 2003 “New York Works” series by Radio Diaries.

So, would you say that you’re more interested in using these profiles to create a portrait of the city, with an eye to resonance across people’s profiles, or in gathering a collection of individual profiles that each stands as a self-contained story — and the people profiled all just happen to live in New York?

We’re looking to do both simultaneously, if that’s possible. We’re hoping these profiles will, in total, create a portrait of this city, but each profile should also be a meal in itself. Our viewers seem to be experiencing these profiles on multiple levels also, with some of their comments centered around an individual piece, while others are digesting it collectively. We’ve found it interesting how many viewers are wistful for New York while others are satisfying an urge to get to know it through this series. Kathryn from England said, “I’ve always been intimidated by NYCity … the portraits here soften its sense of place…”

The interface created by designer Tom Jackson allows you to experience this rush of faces as the feature loads and that sort of encapsulates the individual versus crowd approach we’re taking in the series as a whole.
Why did you decide to use still photography and audio versus video? Why black and white?

We wanted the tone of the finished pieces to be intimate, and we’ve found that the process of reporting audio sometimes allows for a more direct connection between subject and interviewer. We know from the feedback we’ve received that viewers are connecting strongly with the subjects as well. One viewer wrote, “Readers deserve a break from the bland, rehearsed interviews of politicians and celebrities. This series provides a fresh blast of reality by capturing the inspiring stories of real Americans.”

From the beginning, we were imagining audio and photos working together, almost like an exhibit. Todd Heisler‘s beautiful photographs make that very much the case. Meaghan Looram, the picture editor on the project, was critical to these decisions, so we put this question to her and here is her take:
“From very early on, we talked about creating a spare, elegant visual aesthetic which would allow the viewer to absorb what we hoped would be very strong and intimate audio. We also planned for fewer images than our audio slide shows generally use, in an effort to establish a slower pace, further allowing the audience to take in the audio without unnecessary distraction.

We were fairly sure from the start that we wanted black and white images. In part, we wanted to establish an aesthetic consistency, but we also wanted to use a visual signal that would differentiate this feature from other more traditional, news-pegged slide shows. Black and white images also help to establish a reflective tone, which is a well-suited complement to the speakers’ meditations on themselves.”

I don’t think people always understand how many different skill sets go into an online production. Can you paint a picture of the different roles involved, and how you work together to create the final product?

One of the original goals for this project was to carry out an ongoing objective here at The Times for more integration between journalists working on different platforms and with varying degrees of multimedia expertise. So our team includes editors for the Web and print, an interactive designer/developer, a photographer and a group of 10 producers with varying levels of experience. People’s roles have crossed over, as you might expect, with producers writing text for the printed component, a print editor editing audio pieces and everyone contributing character ideas and brainstorms.

We all work together very closely, but not without challenges in negotiating roles. It’s still new for a group like this to be working on a single Times project together.
Do you have plans to add any interactivity to the series?

Our vision is for this series to evolve over time with more interactivity. We think it might be interesting to reveal our process a little more and perhaps offer some stories behind the stories or even outtakes from the field. We’d also like eventually to add other layers of experience to the interface such as a map showing the location of each profile subject.

Viewers can already write in with ideas for profile subjects via the “About” button you see during playback of each profile. We’ve received dozens of suggestions, including people nominating their spouses, children, siblings, friends, mentors and strangers they’ve been intrigued by from afar. Those nominations are turning out to be a wonderfully entertaining component of the project we didn’t predict and we’ve considered ways we might showcase the suggestions as well.

What do you think of One in 8 Million? Leave your questions for the producers in the comments below.
Added March 2, 2009: The producers of One in 8 Million answered a question in the comments. Keep those questions coming!

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Amanda Hirsch is former editorial director of PBS Interactive.