iBooks tool helps bring scenes and smells of early San Francisco eateries to life

I first tasted the story in the briny shellfish at Swan Oyster Depot. But it was the warm focaccia from Liguria Bakery savored on a cold bench in Washington Square park that brought it home: I knew I didn’t want people just to read my story about San Francisco restaurants that opened in the boom years after the 1906 earthquake. I wanted them to taste it, to hear it, to feel it – to somehow experience these places and get to know the people who kept them going.

clifton-palace menu

A selection from a 1903 menu.

In fall 2011, I was writing this piece for the travel section of The Seattle Times, using a vacation from my job as director of visuals to explore my passion for learning about places through the history of their foods. I knew I had more to share than the newspaper could accommodate, but it wasn’t clear what form that might take.

As a visual journalist, I’ve worked with reporters and editors to help them create stories that unfold visually. Together we would debate: Should a story be broken up in short sections or be structured in flowing chapters? When should a character be introduced in a photograph? When is a chart needed to tell a data story? What does this story want to be to best draw in readers in print or online?

Of course, the shapes of stories are forever shifting. In my Knight Fellowship (2004-05), I explored different forms of storytelling in visual arts, film and literature. Now, stories are also tweets or Facebook posts, webisodes or short-form documentaries, sketch blogs or data visualizations. And ebooks.

And right at the moment that I had a story of my own to shape, a new tool became available. In January, Apple released iBooks Author. Apple’s goal with this free software was to capture the lucrative educational market (and young consumers) by making it simpler and more economical to create interactive textbooks. What I saw was a tool that could be used to create an immersive, interactive, multisensory narrative experience. I already knew how to design a story; this software gave me the ability to add video, interactive maps, photo galleries, pop-up sidebars and links to sources. Most intriguing, it allowed me to present an interactive story in the fluid experience of a digital book rather than in the choppy experience of clicking through a website. And I could create this experience without paying to develop an app.

So I took a leap, pushing the software and myself in a new direction.

I was fortunate to have the network of former Knight Fellows – talented folks like Geri Migielicz, now multimedia instructor at Stanford University, who shot and edited videos, and Knight Fellowship Managing Director Dawn Garcia, who listened and offered feedback. And I was fortunate to have the support of Seattle Times editors who recognized my passion for this new form of storytelling and worked with me so I could take a leave and return to the newsroom in a different capacity.

clifton-tables from the rubble cover

‘Tables from the Rubble,’ an interactive book, takes readers to San Francisco in the years just after the Great Earthquake of 1906. Amid the ruins of a crumbled city, restaurants rose to feed the hungry and lead the recovery. Some are still in business.

The result, “Tables From The Rubble,” (released this fall in Apple’s iBookstore), achieves my goal of immersive, interactive storytelling by weaving together the stories of San Francisco restaurants that started after the earthquake with dozens of historic and new photographs, Geri’s videos from each restaurant, galleries of old menus, an interactive map based on a 1907 document, links to a current map, recipes that readers can use to bring a little of the restaurants’ legacies to their own dining tables, and stories behind each of the specialties.

As exciting as it is, like most storytelling tools, iBooks Author has its flaws. For now, books made with iBooks Author are accessible only on the iPad and iPad Mini. iPads are the best-selling large tablets, but that is, of course, just a sliver of the book-reading public. I’m learning first-hand now the challenges of trying to market to a sliver of an audience.

But the immersive storytelling experience that can be created with this tool using relatively few resources is exciting. It presents opportunities for small publishers, individual authors or artists, and media companies looking to efficiently repurpose and monetize the great content they already produce. Whether it’s on Apple’s platform or in another format still to emerge, I believe this kind of seamless, interactive narrative has a future.

As for me, the experience of creating “Tables From The Rubble” just whetted my appetite. This summer my husband, Chris Cellars, and I acted on a longtime dream, forming a small publishing company, Tandemvines Publishing. I now have a great new tool – and a drive to discover others – to do the job I love most: helping journalists and artists tell their stories in exciting new ways.

Denise Clifton was a 2004-05 Knight Fellow who focused on studying storytelling forms across media during her fellowship year. She is currently the Mobile Development Specialist for news at The Seattle Times, as well as executive editor of Tandemvines Publishing. Email: denise@tandemvines.com