Breakdown: The power of online media

As I’ve said before, I don’t usually use this blog to promote the place I work (the Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto). That’s not because I don’t think it’s worth promoting, but mostly because I figure the Globe does a pretty good job of that itself, and doesn’t really need my help. But every now and then there’s something special that I think is worth mentioning, and our series on mental health is one of those things. It’s a special package called Breakdown, and it involves feature stories in the paper but also on the Web, about how people and their families and society in general are dealing with various kinds of mental illness — from generalized anxiety to OCD to bipolar disorder.

Like most people, I have had experiences with the mentally ill, and not just on street corners or the subway but closer to home, with friends and even family members. Every case is unique, and sometimes there are happy endings — as in the case of Jesse, who developed a schizophrenic disorder in his 20s but managed to find treatment and now is mostly healthy again — and sometimes there are not, as is the case with Peter, a promising lawyer whose career and family life were destroyed by his bipolar disorder and repeated suicide attempts (although even that could be seen as a happy story, since he is still alive).

Not only is it an important and touching issue, however — it is also an excellent example of the marriage of powerful reporting and some great design, not just in the newspaper but also online. As a fan of all things Web-based I might be biased, but I think this kind of story (and others, like Ian Brown’s heart-wrenching portrait of life with his severely handicapped son) becomes even more powerful online, where you can hear and see Peter O’Neill talk about his life — and his most recent suicide attempt — in his own words, or listen to Jesse’s mother talk about her son while looking at photos of him as a child.

Is this another example of how only the traditional media can do this kind of long-form journalism? I don’t know about that. Another great example I came across recently was Networked Streets, an online journalism project from Ryerson University, co-ordinated by professor Vinita Srivastava, which looks at the experience of immigrant families in Toronto. Both the Globe’s package (as well as some of the other online documentaries the staff at the paper have put together recently) and the Ryerson project don’t just involve great reporting, but great design, layout, video editing and so on — all the things that go into making the Web an incredibly powerful medium for journalism.

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