Growing up, stories about abandoned babies made an impression on me. I have always gravitated toward unusual characters and stories. When I dug deeper, I found ten cases in Norway over the last thirty years. But one story differed markedly; there was something about its bizarre poetry: the churchyard, the plastic bag, the frost on the grass on the graveyard, the bloody receipt in the plastic bag, the spectacular reunion of mother and son. Here is a huge story, an epic tale of life, death and love.
As Jon Franklin, the first Pulitzer Prize-winner for feature writing, once said, “Most news stories are endings without the beginnings attached.” There is nothing about the hows and whys. But answers to these questions typically make for a far more interesting story than the mere facts. That’s where narrative journalism is so powerful, it is an attempt to find the deep contexts – and tell them.
Our story achieved record-breaking success in Norway, attracting more than 1.1 million unique online users, or 20% of the entire Norwegian population. It is now a worldwide success as well. Readers have now spent close to 24 years – over 220 000 hours – reading the series.
We spent 27.000 hours making it. It cost a huge amount of work and pain to finish the story. It took me two and a half years, on and off, from start to finish. At one point I was about to give up, but the story won in the end.
After three months of work we had a draft that could have been published. With a decent start, a rather exciting middle section with some strong turning points and a satisfying ending. But I felt the piece left many questions unanswered. In the research that followed, we kept on finding new people and new twists time and again.After half a year of collecting material, reporting, digging into documents and attempting to track down key people, I realized that the story had grown too massive, beyond the framework of a regular feature narrative. Then I saw the outline of a series.
When we found Victor Olav, the grown-up baby in the plastic bag, in Manila, we could have published the series with a totally happy ending. But we decided to wait until he arrived in Norway, more than a year later. I felt that the story had a much greater potential: to have him walk over the graveyard and meet the man who found him there in a plastic bag. The idea was too good to turn down. Moreover, we had a clear sense that Victor Olav did not know about his first minutes and days on Earth. We could not run the story until things were properly talked through.
In the meantime, we worked to present this series in an innovative way. That part was difficult to get approval for. Our management realized it would take a lot of time and resources. But our newspaper has some funds earmarked for quality journalism, which eventually supported the making of the online presentation.
We knew about the strategies for series from television, but there was little material to rely on when it came to serializing text and images for magazines and online newspapers. We decided to program everything from scratch to fit this story. It’s probably one of the most ambitious digital projects in the Norwegian press ever. It was essential that the effects and the digital, multimedia details would not stand in the way of the story, but rather reinforce moods, make an emotion linger, press the right buttons.
We ended up presenting the nine chapters as a series over five weeks, with powerful cliffhangers. Virtually all chapters were presented as a major happening, almost like a breaking news story. On the day of the US presidential elections, the publication of a new chapter was presented more prominently that the news from the US. Spreading chapters over several weeks also had a commercial upside, as it turned out. Every day the amount of time our readers spent on our story increased – to our delight – and we could monitor it in real time, thanks to the dashboard our analytic staff had made.
Halfway into the series our management decided to give the newspapers’ premium subscriber early access to the remaining chapters, a few days before they were published for free. This led to an avalanche of new subscribers, more than any article had generated in the newspaper’s online history at the time. Our newspaper has since used this as a model for boosting digital sales with quality long-form series.