Interactive journalism executed well

Last month, with the U.S. Open tennis tournament beginning, the New York Times opened its readers to worlds they’ve never seen or even realized exist.

This Times’ interactive story shows where the world’s best tennis players first learned to play, and blows up the perception that everyone in the sport was a financially privileged kid practicing on manicured courts.

“They’re all showcased at these pristine venues,” sports editor Jason Stallman said of how tennis players are shown during television broadcasts. “We wanted to take readers back to where some of the top players came from, those places that bear little resemblance to Wimbledon, Roland Garros, Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, etc.”

The project features videos of eight courts where current tennis pros began playing as kids. A 1- or 2-minute audio interview accompanies each video.

It’s one thing to describe the Compton courts where Venus and Serena Williams first hammered forehands. It’s another to see kids playing on it today, while Isha Price, the Williams sisters’ sister, explains what Venus and Serena learned there.

“We are always trying to find smart new ways to tell stories and convey information, to exploit the possibilities offered by digital journalism,” Catrin Einhorn, a multimedia reporter who worked on the project, wrote in an email discussing the project. “Steve Duenes, who runs graphics, came up with the idea. A couple years ago, he saw an image of a court in Compton where Venus and Serena Williams played as children, and ever since he’s been looking for a way to get back to it. We liked the idea of bringing people to courts around the world and letting them compare the courts visually, with audio of someone who remembered the player as a child providing the context.”

Tapping friends, family and old coaches to rather than interviewing the players directly was smart journalism. It offered better perspective and provided anecdotes a pro wouldn’t think to or want to reveal (one player clutched a stuffed animal while she first played).

“Ask yourself what you were like at age 4 or 5,” Einhorn said. “Now ask your mom or uncle or a really important teacher. They probably have a lot more insight.”

The project took a month to complete, according to Einhorn, who was one of eight staff members working on it. The Times also used freelancers to help capture video and audio across the globe. The project featured courts from Serbia, Scotland, Venezuela to Switzerland, Japan, India, Russia and America.

To keep each story consistent, Einhorn created a list of questions covering three themes: the players as children, the evolution of the courts and how the court affected the player.

In 10-15 minutes, we get a global view and experience of tennis and its stars’ roots.

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