Case Study: “Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt”

On April 30, 2013, Planet Money launched a Kickstarter campaign entitled “Planet Money T-shirt.” The intent of this campaign was to raise money in order to tell the story of t-shirt creation, from start to finish. In order to tell this story, Planet Money asked supporters to pledge $25 in exchange for their own Planet Money t-shirt that will tell buyers the story of its own creation. The funding period lasted until May 14, 2013, a total of fourteen days. By May 1st Planet Money had surpassed their goal of $500,000. Ultimately, the campaign received $590,807 and Planet Money made 25,000 t-shirts.

Unbeknownst to many consumers, almost every single t-shirt is the result of a global production. From cotton growth to doorstep delivery, a single t-shirt may be the accumulation of several different nations collaborating on a sole project. Planet Money wanted to shine a light on the complexity of this process, and give a face to the workers behind the t-shirt. 10 reporters, 3 continents and 1 archipelago later, NPR completed a multimedia project to tell the story. This project was published on December 2, 2013.

“Planet Money Makes a T-shirt” is an innovative project both visually and textually.

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Visually speaking, the project is both attractive and clean. The home page, which features a moving video background and a simple text overlay, grasps the reader’s attention immediately. With a clickable “begin” link in the center of the page, and a “chapters” link in the lower left-hand corner, navigation is both straightforward and directed. By clicking on the begin link, readers are directed to a video that begins playing without any reader interaction.

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The video serves to summarize the story for readers, as Alex Bloomberg explains the purpose behind the story and also shows the final production. At only 47 seconds long, the high quality video is captivating. In closing, Bloomberg notes, “there’s nothing ordinary about a simple t-shirt.”

All five of the chapters are set up the same way, starting with a short video and then a prompt encouraging readers to scroll down to a text-based portion with additional information. The audio, video and text all compliment each other in an undeniable manner. The story would be incrementally different had any of these three elements been omitted. Like the initial “about” video, the videos in each of the five chapters are of noteworthy quality.

In terms of the text, “Planet Money Makes a T-shirt” incorporates many of the techniques that represent a good multimedia project, as learned through the course modules. The text is abounding with links, which provide readers with additional resources and further information. These links are meaningful, and add value to the project, rather than linking for the sake of linking. The format of the text reflects a “chunking” style, with short, digestible paragraphs. Moreover, the subheadings are straightforward and informative. There were two techniques of a good multimedia project that the creators of “Planet Money Makes a T-shirt” seemed to omit: bulleting and lists. Because the style of this project is clean and chunky, I do not believe that either bullets or lists would be appropriate.

Another major theme at the focus of multimedia scholarly attention is the incorporation of maps and data. “Planet Money Makes a T-shirt” relies on several different techniques to present data. In fact, because of the informative nature of this project, data dominates throughout the story. After reading the very first paragraph, readers are presented with a statistical representation of Bowen Flowers’ cotton farming operation.

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In “Tell a Meaningful Story With Data,” author Daniel Waisberg explains that combining data and storytelling can create a more meaningful production. He provides readers with numerous lessons that are insightful in considering adding data to a story.

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I believe that Planet Money’s story is a perfect representation of these lessons. The story certainly works to organize and bring together all of the components involved in making a simple t-shirt. As readers learn by progressing through the story, there is a great deal of work and people involved in the process of making a t-shirt. The data included in this story is the direct result of discernment from NPR’s staff. Further, the data is brief and comprehensible. The authors have taken data that is alien to most of the population, and compiled it into a format that is both lucid and engaging. Ultimately, as Waisberg notes, the story is not about the data. The story is about t-shirt production. That being said, the data should not, and does not, overwhelm the story. It is concise and aesthetically appealing without overpowering the story itself.

The variety of techniques in which the data is presented is certainly worth mentioning. Throughout the story, the authors incorporate several graphics and graphs, which highlight statistics or add informative elements to the story, but interestingly, the authors do not include any maps. In “Using Web Maps To Tell Your Story,” the author explains that there are many different kinds of maps that serve many different purposes. For example, maps may trace a route, predict or model the future, show change over time or summarize a situation. While Planet Money could have utilized a map to capitalize on many of these objectives, I think the authors definitely should have included a map that traced a route. At its roots, this story is the story of a journey. It is the journey of a t-shirt, from the very beginning to the very end. Including a map could have helped readers see how far the t-shirt really does travel throughout the production process. I think this would have helped add context to the text.

The interactivity of “Planet Money Makes a T-shirt” is pretty low. Users are directed from the very beginning with prompts of where to click and what to read. Despite this, the social aspect of the story is very high. In order for the story to even exist, reader interaction was required. Planet Money and NPR needed people to pledge money via Kickstarter. Those who pledged money were essentially purchasing a t-shirt, and thus were likely interested in the process and journey of the story. The last chapter of the story is entitled, “You,” and it explains how this story was made possible because of audience interaction. Then, by compiling images through the hashtag “#seedtoshirt” the authors were able to highlight many of the readers and literally include them in the story. The hashtag helps to connect the story and the readers, but it also worked to generate increased views and shares on the story. It got people involved on an individual level, and allowed them to add their own element to the story. The story may not be very interactive on the surface, but it definitely allotted for conversation.

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The video for this chapter highlights workers behind the t-shirt production, and provides fun facts about them. This serves to personalize the workers and connects readers on a deeper emotional level. Below are some screen shots from that video:

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In conclusion, I thought that “Planet Money Makes a T-shirt” was an excellent representation of multimedia storytelling and the future of digital media. The story included a majority of the major aspects in which were covered throughout the semester in an alluring way, while still remaining simple and comprehensible. In deciding on a case study to cover, I was immediately drawn to this story. I found myself watching the videos and reading the text with great interest, completely captivated. This is what makes a good story. It is intriguing. It is informative. It is a combination of numerous media into a sole production. If the future of journalism looks anything like Sarah Marshall predicted in her four part blog series, then the team at NPR and Planet Money are certainly on the right track to relevancy and prominence.

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