The Guts: The Stolen Ones by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune

The Herald-Tribune in Sarasota, Fla., published a huge special project last Sunday. The Stolen Ones documents the stories of children trafficked for sex, along with the pain their families endure. Tony Elkins, the Assistant Managing Editor for Production, designed both the print and web presentations. In print, the investigation spanned a 44-page ad-free tab.

Tony has been with the Herald-Tribune for 8 years. They have four dedicated designers, but everyone on the copy desk contributes to the design process in some fashion. They also have a two-person graphics desk. Follow Tony on Twitter at @telkinsjr.

Here’s how it was done:

Rachel Schallom: For a small paper, this seems like a massive project. How often do you get the chance to work on special sections of this size? How much experience does the paper have with longform web design?

Tony Elkins: This is actually our second project this year. Our first project, Breaking the Banks, examined the role community banks played during the recession and boom years. It was more data driven, so it took a lot of design time from our graphics and development teams. That project helped set the groundwork for The Stolen Ones. We learned how to set better deadlines, how much lead time is needed to really develop the site tools, and most importantly, to leave ourselves enough time to work out the details. And besides, we like to think we play above our size at the Herald-Tribune.

Everyone says it unusual for a paper our size to tackle something like this. I think that’s a flaw in how everyone views themselves. Technology levels the playing field. Sure, larger organizations may have a small army of developers, designers, photographers and writers, but we are all using the same tools to produce these types of projects. I think consumer appetite for great presentations will only get stronger. If they are viewing us on the same platforms they will expect the same level of content. Projects like these prove visual presentation matters. No matter how great your content is, if you don’t put it in an attractive package, it will be ignored. And let’s not forget, there’s an incredible amount of talented people working outside the major metros.

web1RS: How long was the project team working on this? How involved were you as a designer throughout the planning?

TE: The reporter first pitched this to me about a year ago. It was beneficial that I happen to be an Assistant Managing Editor as well as leading the paper’s visual team. We had several other smaller projects working at the time so I decided I was going to take the design on myself and serve as the project manager. The design, photography and story were all talked about as one cohesive unit. We had small group of four people, myself, the reporter, the photographer and editor. We met every couple of weeks over the last 8 months and would workshop the story, the photos, the layout and videos together. All of us contributed to each aspect of the story. We set out from the very beginning to make sure each part of the presentation complimented each other.

RS: Did you find it difficult to work on executing both the print and web designs?

TE: It didn’t seem that daunting at first. I had a pretty clear vision early on how I wanted the print version to look (although I kept the idea of a separate 44-page tab to myself until I knew we had enough content to pull it off). For the web, I have been dying to try something like this ever since I first saw the Bat For Lashes interview on Pitchfork quite a while back. The vision held pretty true throughout the process so I never felt that it was too much to take on. But that was only possible because of Patrick Carroll and Dak Le, our development team. They were able to take my web designs and execute them almost flawlessly. It also helped that we went to press early in the week with the tab, and I had a few days to iron out small details on the site. That’s not to say there was no sleep lost that final week as everything hit deadline and was being finalized.

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RS: Talk me through the decision to use black and white photos and the decision to not include cutlines on the full-page photos in print.

TE: I actually don’t remember if it was our photographer, Dan Wagner, or myself that pitched B&W, but I do know it was a decision we made very early in the process, and we never looked back. One of the first portraits we shot was of Camille and Moe outside at night with the sword (that photo was an accident . . . the shoot was just for Camille, and Dan happened to have his finger on the trigger as Moe came over to hug her mother). I don’t think I even looked at color proofs of anything after that. Once we saw that image we knew everything else had to compliment it. Every portrait and documentary photo was shot with the intention of running in B&W.

I pitched the decision to not run cutlines on the opening chapter photos for the simple reason I didn’t think we needed them. Each chapter opened with a very distinct description of the character driving that part of the story. I set the names off in red as subtle indicator of who they were. My overall goal for the design was to get out of the way as much as possible, and let the story and photos speak for themselves.

RS: In the Extras tab, you link to the print pages. I haven’t seen this done very often. How did that idea come to be?

TE: Honestly, I didn’t think that part through very much. Since we had gone to press earlier in the week, I asked the dev team if it was possible to throw the PDF on the site. A little of it was selfish, too. We had put a lot of time into the photography and design of the tab, and I wanted people to see what we had done if they were outside our market.

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RS: The website is not responsive, but it still looks pretty good on mobile. Will responsive be a goal for the future?

TE: I think responsive is in everyone’s future. We were simply picking our battles and working with our resources with this project. I made the decision not to focus to heavily on mobile simply for the reason the story was so long. We did make sure it was as tablet-friendly as it could be, but I didn’t see people reading something this long on a phone. But that type of thinking won’t be around too much longer. Going forward, responsive design has to be considered as people make a greater push to mobile.

RS: Because of the topic, it is reasonable to think advertising would be inappropriate, but a 44-page ad-free section is so rare these days. Did the partnership with the Community Foundation allow for this?

TE: Everyone looked at me like I was crazy when I told them I was doing the tab. I had worked the room behind the scenes and pitched it to my Executive Editor Bill Church as well as several operations managers. I knew we could pull it off because the content was so good. Like I said earlier, I wanted to stay out of the way of the story and thought a single product was the best way for readers to digest it. I just couldn’t see spreading the story out over 9 days in the A section.

The partnership with the Community Foundation did allow us to offset some of the costs, but more importantly they gave the project something we could never have done . . . and that’s offer a way for the community to get involved. Newspapers are great at telling stories, but we are typically not set up to enact change. By partnering with the Foundation we were able to offer resources to victims, agencies and those that want to donate time, money or resources to combat the problem.

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RS: I was surprised there weren’t any graphics on hard data for human trafficking. Was it a goal to stick with using photos, videos and words to tell the stories of the victims and their families?

TE: David McSwane did a staggering amount of research and reporting for the story, but in the end, it was the characters that drove the storytelling. We pitched several graphics ideas back and forth during our meetings, but we struggled with how they fit in the overall look and feel. Nothing ever felt right no matter how we approached it. We decided to stick with photos and video only because our subjects told their own story so well.

[See an awesome design project and want to know more about it? Send it my way! You can email me at rschallom@gmail.com or find me on Twitter.]