10,000 Words rarely features individual projects (the tradition has been to show several projects incorporating a specific technology), but Prison Valley is such a unique and fascinating piece of digital journalism that it merits its own post.
Prison Valley is an interactive documentary that takes full advantage of the web to tell the story of Cañon City, Colorado, a prison town whose residents and livelihood stem from the incarceration of local inmates. The project is unique in its incorporation of video, social media, blogging, and even a mobile application to tell a single story.
The beautifully-shot digital video is what initially pulls the viewer in, using arresting visuals to show the bleak town while locals recount the problem the Colorado city faces. The interviews and nat sound are followed by a narrator explaining the importance of the story.
There are a million and one video documentaries on the web, but Prison Valley sets itself apart by utilizing the full computer screen rather than an embedded video. This also encourages the audience to be immersed and pay greater attention to the story than they would with a smaller embedded video. The project also includes photos displayed with the Ken Burns effect and multiple video clips that appear at once so the audience always has something to focus on. The project also includes interactive elements that encourage the viewer to explore various details of the story.

If the viewer at any time leaves the site and returns later, he or she can pick right back up where they left off. Viewers are also encouraged to go deeper in the story by following the project on Twitter and Facebook. The project also features regular updates on its blog.
As previously mentioned, Prison Valley also has an iPhone app. Viewers can access photos, slideshows, discussion groups, and behind the scenes info all from their smartphone.
In an email interview, co-director David Dufresne, a documentary director and former print journalist, explained how the project came together (translated from French):
“At first, we wanted to create an audio slideshow. And it ended up being what you saw: a web documentary for the Internet with an iPhone version as well. Arte (a French-German TV channel) will broadcast the movie during prime time and it will be followed by a debate on imprisonment. Other European TV channels are interested in the movie part of the project. And we are also working on a photo album which will be available in September. Each time, we’re trying to adapt the story to the various media. It is essential: the same story is told in different ways according to the medium.
“The subject (the prison industry in the United States) was not necessarily accessible for a general audience. Yet, the success of ‘Prison Valley’ showed that you can address these themes and still meet an audience. This was obviously one of our bets. Thus, we organize chats every Thursday which are part of our program (with the French Justice State Secretary, political and union activists, etc.) and I have to say we are always surprised to see that a lot of people are taking part and asking questions. We also bet on the length, on a long format. I can tell you that almost 25% of the people who log in to Prison Valley watch the entire movie (59 minutes) and most of the bonuses.”
“Because journalism, in France as well as in the United States, is going through its most serious economic and ethical crisis and it is about time it began questioning itself. And reinventing itself. I mean, we have to try and tell stories in a new way, still being rigorous and serious of course, but using different codes, different grammars, different production tools, different ways of reporting facts and of being reporters.”
Prison Valley is the epitome of multimedia journalism, using the right media to tell various aspects of the story to help the viewer better understand it and follow along. The project doesn’t feel forced, it looks amazing, and the viewer is in total control of which part of the project they view. In short, every journalist should at least view the project, if only to see what the what is possible in digital journalism.