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Bottoming Out: A look back at our multimedia journalism package on gambling addiction
July 27, 2010

UPDATE: I originally posted this blog entry months ago, yet it seems even more relevant today! It was announced this morning (Dec. 22, 2010) that the video portion of this project just won a prestigious Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award, making the Las Vegas Sun the first newspaper to receive the award for multimedia storytelling.

I can’t even begin to explain how proud I am of the Las Vegas Sun, its amazing journalists, and its commitment to powerful, creative and relevant online journalism! And a special congrats to Scott Den Herder, who was a powerful force in helping the Sun find and tell this story.

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For several months — and for several reasons — I quit speaking at conferences, universities, etc… Since I’ve gradually started to agree to speak again, I’ve noticed that one of the Sun’s projects from the last year that gets a ton of attention and even more questions is our big gambling project from November.

I only thought to mention this because I’ve never really posted anything about the project — and now is a good time to do so. On Monday, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors named “Bottoming Out” as the “best multimedia storytelling among newspapers” with circulation between 90,001 and 199,999 in the country in its annual contest.

Earlier this summer, “Bottoming Out” won the EPpy award for Best Web Special Feature - Enterprise. In March, the Sun’s gambling project placed second in the National Headliner Awards in the “Journalistic Innovation” category.

The series began with a pitch from then-Sun video journalist Scott Den Herder, who had found a local man who had been videotaping his life as a problem gambler. From there, we met with the Sun’s print editors and a few writers to go over the how and why of the story.

It ended up being a three-part series dealing with the prevalent, but somewhat hidden, social problems spawned by gambling — the very pillar of Las Vegas’ economy and tourist industry. And multimedia and audience interaction would be integral elements in our storytelling process.

The series revolved around one man’s personal tale of gambling addiction, made all the more interesting and rare in that he gave us access to a video diary of his journey to the depths of financial ruin and back. The series also explained the psychology of addiction and the technology that casinos use, which some say feeds the addiction.

Here were the major components of the project:

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MOVING PICTURES

The key Web component for this series was a video diary from Tony McDew, a local gambler who recognized he had a problem and thought he might be able to deal with it and help others by documenting his experiences. More than a year’s worth of struggling ends with Tony “bottoming out.”

It’s very dramatic and powerful to see this actually happen on video.

This video was a huge part of the project because we literally had hours upon hours of this man’s video diaries. Plus, Scott shot new interviews with Tony to help pull it together. But even once it had been edited, an initial cut was more than 30 minutes long. At that point, we had to decide just how long we could let the video go.

Ultimately, we decided the video would run just more than 15 minutes. But it was agonizing to get it that short. Interestingly enough, people watched it.


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THAT’S FLASHY, EVEN FOR VEGAS

We wanted to show folks why you are almost always going to lose once you sit down at a slot machine. It’s not about luck. It’s cold, hard math.

Regardless of whether you’ve put money into a Vegas slot machine, the project’s main interactive graphic from Tyson Anderson gave you a chance to see what it’s all about and how the math that powers these machines makes sure you go back to Boise with a lot less in your wallet.

It also became one of the most viewed pieces of Flash content our team has created since the Sun’s site was relaunched back in January 2008.

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NEW-MEDIA JOURNALISM IS A DIALOGUE, NOT A MONOLOGUE

Although I loved the storytelling techniques used in this project, this part of “Bottoming Out” was probably my favorite. We asked our readers to submit their own stories and comments about gambling addiction. And they did.

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YOU’VE GOT QUESTIONS…

We also hosted a live online chat with Problem Gambling Center Executive Director Krista Creelman, who answered questions about gambling addiction from Las Vegas Sun readers.

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GAMBLING ADDICTION RESOURCES

We also provided Gamblers Anonymous contact information, including a Google map of GA meeting spots and a 20-question self-test to decide if you might have a gambling problem.

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AND, OF COURSE, THERE WERE STORIES

The Las Vegas Sun’s newsroom wrote three longform stories that showed the dark side of gambling addiction when you live in Sin City and how recovery can occur.

* Part One: The pull of a drug, a push to the brink by J. Patrick Coolican
* Part Two: Illness theory gaining ground for gambling addiction by Liz Benston
* Part Three: Could the game be partly to blame for addiction? also by Liz Benston

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The first image I posted on this blog entry was for how the series looked in its Sunday newspaper debut. Here is how it looked in the print edition the other two days:

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What was interesting about this project to me was how it resonated with our audience. At one point, all three of the text stories from “Bottoming Out” were in our site’s top-10 most-read list, which was remarkable because they were spread out over a three-day period. As I mentioned above, the Flash slot machine is still one of the most-viewed pieces of Flash-based storytelling elements our team has created while at the Las Vegas Sun.

I’m often asked about what planning and coordination looked like for this project. Planning for “Bottoming Out” probably began three or four months before it was published and we knew after our very first meeting what the core elements would be: text stories, the video diary in some shape or form, a Flash slot machine, specially designed template/page for LasVegasSun.com (beautifully done by Danny DeBelius), and things like the chat, ability for readers to post stories and the Google map of Gamblers Anonymous meetings.

At first we met with nearly the full group: writers, editors (print and digital), photographers, videographers, designers (print and digital), everyone … But as we got further into the project, we met more with smaller groups based upon what we were focused on. I’d say for about a six-week period leading up to the project’s release, we’d meet for about an hour once a week or so.

Despite the large lead-up time, we were working on nearly all of the major elements — stories, the Flash graphic, the video and even the site’s design — right up until a few days before it was going to debut.

It was very coordinated, but still kind of casual. More importantly, it worked. This wasn’t just high-level journalism that other journalists appreciated, it was high-level journalism that our readers appreciated. And interacted with.

It represents exactly the type of enterprise and new-media journalism to which the Las Vegas Sun is committed.

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