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Behind the scenes of the Mexico drug war project

A woman who was found beating herself in the downtown of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico seen in a privately run shelter for the mentally ill west of the city. Due to a lack of state social infrastructure many people with extreme mental illnesses are brought here.

Louie Palu/ZUMA Press

The Mexico drug war multimedia presentation was one of those out-of-the-blue projects that will probably never be replicated.

Last summer, Louie Palu, a former Globe staff photographer, ran into Sinclair Stewart, the Globe's Editor, News and Sports, and mentioned he'd recently spent a year in Mexico chronicling the drug war. Sinclair and Louie chatted a few more times over the course of the fall and Louie was invited in to chat with a small group of editors and photographers a little before Christmas. Louie ended up leaving a disc of 80-odd images, several MP3s of interviews and ambient noise from some of the places he visited and five 1,200-word essays – one essay for each of the five general locations he'd split his project into.

Now, the progress of these things is rarely fluid. Every department in the organization is juggling multiple stories, features or projects, so Mexico sort of gestated for a few weeks while the paper side and web side figured out how it might play and when it might run. For the web, editor Stephen Northfield, digital designer/developer Chris Manza, deputy photo editor Roger Hallet and I (I'm multimedia editor), sat down and started laying the groundwork for the project. We figured that since this really was a visual project we needed to develop a layout that captured and presented the images in a big way.

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We threw around some ideas on how to show off Louie's images and settled on creating five audio slideshows to show the series of pictures. One thing we keyed on right away was the need for greater context and explanation and we decided we'd get Louie in to record some background narration and lay down some dialogue on the slideshows. Once the basic plan was decided, Chris Manza mocked up some options for pages of the chapters and spent some time figuring out how the interactive would appear on mobile devices.

Meanwhile, the Globe video team had Louie come in to record an intro video that would set up the project, put a face on the guy who did all of the work and give us something akin to a movie trailer that we'd be able to run independently on the site. After Hannah Sung interviewed Louie, I grabbed him for an hour and a half in the studio, mic-ed him up to a digital recorder and had him chat casually about each of the five series of images. We recorded between five and 15 minutes of audio for each of the chapters.

Armed with all of the raw audio and visual material, web editor Aleysha Haniff and I started plotting the pace and flow of the slideshows. We used Adobe Audition to listen to, mark and clip Louie's dialogue down to about a minute and a half. Then Aleysha used Final Cut Pro to lay out each chapter's images and laid the tracks down. While some images needed to be synced perfectly with the audio, most of the dialogue was loosely linked to the sequence of photos. But it still took about a week to complete all five videos as we devoted a lot of time deciding on the proper choices of images and audio clips – what would carry the chapter, what's the best way to get at this point or that point, is that the right audio for that image, is that the right image. Aleysha's zoom, pan and fade effects are all added through Final Cut Pro.

Once the slideshows were exported (as MP4s), the videos were loaded into our Brightcove video platform and embedded into the interactive. Meanwhile, I edited down Louie's five essays into 400-word backgrounders. The idea was to keep the text short, like an extended caption, because we wanted to keep the focus on the visuals. But the text was supportive, and gave some good contextual information and explanation.

However, the beauty of the project design is that it would work wonderfully with a longer narrative. Chris's incorporation of sidebar pop-ups would work for videos or audio just as easily as it did in Mexico with the maps. So a project such as last year's Breaking Caste, which included some long reads, could conceivably be presented beautifully in this template, too.

Back to my opening line – the fact that a project such as this will likely never happen the same way again. I can't recall anything I've worked on at the Globe that started with 90 per cent of the material already filed. So much of what we do here begins with an idea that morphs and changes as that idea is carried forward through channels and departments. What we were able to do with Mexico is build an interactive around finished content rather than conceive of an interactive model around proposed content. There's a big difference (and far fewer headaches). The one major plus is that even if we come up with a brand new idea now, some kind of narrative that breaks into chapters, we have a template we'll be able to use.

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About the Author

Michael Snider started working at the Globe and Mail in December, 2005. From fall 2006 until September 2011, he edited, the Globe and Mail's online tech section. Previously, Michael Snider worked at Maclean's, The Toronto Star and the Korea Times. More


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