The Making Of England v

Words by Andrew McMillen
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The first project released by Australian digital publishing company Shorthand details one of sport’s ultimate rivalries, yet ironically, it only came to fruition after partnering with an iconic British media outlet which recently launched down under. In collaboration with the Guardian Australia, ‘England v Australia’ is a long-form interactive story that traces the history of the the two countries’ ongoing contest, which spans generations, oceans and sporting codes.

“We wanted to develop a tool that would be used by the publishing industry,” says Shorthand executive manager Ben Fogarty. “And what better way to find out what it needs to become than working with someone like the Guardian, with their experience and their approach to storytelling, news and features? It was a great opportunity to get straight into the thick of it with a very well-known, professional organisation, and see how and where Shorthand fits into that scenario.”

The Brisbane-based start-up was founded in March 2013 in recognition of a problem that had emerged in online journalism: how could publishers tell ‘epic’ stories without the requisite eye-popping budgets, labour-intensive web development, and months of lead time?

In short: how to craft an interactive masterpiece like ‘Snow Fall’ without breaking the bank each and every time? The start-up saw a gap in the market to provide a high-quality, affordable platform for digital storytellers. Although Shorthand’s goal was clear, the team still had many unanswered questions.

“‘England v Australia’ helped us define our scope very well,” says Fogarty. “We had a big question around where the content was going to come from, and how digital storytelling is crafted. Do you start with media and put text around it? Do you grab text and find the media to go with it? Being part of that process from an early stage with the Guardian Australia has helped shape in our minds how to create the product features that’d work best for telling these sorts of stories for the web.”

The partnership has its origins in an early meeting at the Guardian Australia's Sydney office, prior to the publisher’s Australian launch in late May 2013. “I was really impressed by what Shorthand showed us,” says Madhvi Pankhania, Producer at Guardian Australia. “They took one of the existing stories on the site and put it into a different format”; namely, a reimagining of an existing interactive Coco Before Chanel story that included full-screen images, animated scrolling, section transitions and text-over-video. Soon after that first meeting, Pankhania realised that she had a story up her sleeve that was well-suited to be told in an interactive, innovative manner.

“The tool they’d shown us integrated words and media really well,” she says. “The England and Australia rivalry story is a really great piece written by a couple of our fantastic writers, Barney Ronay and Oliver Laughland. Although the text works well in its own right, we’ve also got these brilliant pictures to go with them. We wanted to do something slightly different with it, to show video and pictures side-by-side with the story, and we thought this format would allow us to do that.”

After Pankhania set a challenge for Shorthand to reimagine this story, just as they’d done earlier with Coco Before Chanel, the team got to work in Brisbane. “The way we work is always iterative,” says product manager Marcus Callon. “We took the story text, sketched the story layout and designed it in Photoshop the first time around, to give the Guardian an indication of what it could look like.” This iterative approach allows the small development team of four full-time staff to “start somewhere on a project and make changes until we run out of time,” says Callon, “Or until there are diminishing returns.”

Those first sketches of the prospective layout became the foundation upon which both companies could build the story’s final structure, content and interactive functionality. As is often the case with agile web development, compromises were made out of necessity. “Their initial pitch to us was very different from what we have now, because we had to strip some of the functionality,” says Pankhania. “Shorthand only had so much time to build everything they might have wanted to do. I know that there is some extra functionality that they’re keen to build.” The story took less than a month for the team to develop, from initial sketches to its publication on 8 July.

Though the Guardian Australia had only been launched six weeks earlier, ‘England v Australia’ provided an ideal opportunity for the local team to further the global brand’s reputation for innovative online storytelling.

“Coming to Australia has been great for us,” says Pankhania, “Particularly working with an Australian digital company on this project. It’s been such a great experience, and a really good collaboration for us. We wanted to be as much a part of that industry as much as Shorthand wanted to come and find out about us. The Guardian is forward-thinking, and this is a company that also wants to do something new and interesting. They were very open to listening to us and delivering on requests that the Guardian Australia required in the final build. They’re very keen to create something that we were happy with, and that’s so important when you work with another team.”

While ‘England v Australia’ is the first public story to be powered by Shorthand’s technology, the tool itself is still in development. The goal is to create a product that will allow publishers to author these types of engaging, interactive stories themselves, without the intensive development and accompanying high budgets. Following the story’s publication, there are plans for a brief breather, before the team continues to develop Shorthand behind closed doors.

“We’ll have a day out of the office to reset our vision, then we’ll get back to work on our product,” says Marcus Callon. “We’ll continue to explore doing these types of custom stories before it’s launched. There are other spaces where we think this product could be used, but journalism is the number-one focus at the moment.”

While Pankhania calls ‘England v Australia’ “a perfect example of content that we’re creating that is appreciated by audiences both here and back home,” for Callon and the Shorthand team, it’s the company’s biggest learning opportunity to date. “I hope it proves that this is a good way to tell a story.”

Andrew McMillen (@NiteShok) is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist.

Shorthand creates an engaging and dynamic multimedia experience.

Madhvi Pankhania, Producer for the Guardian Australia

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