Shaminder Dulai is passionate about visual storytelling. Whether on behalf of the Associated Press, The Daily Beast, Newsweek (his current home), or a myriad of other outlets, he's spent the better part of the last two decades bringing compelling, undertold tales from around the globe to a mainstream audience — allowing consumers not just to read about, but to experience the plight of LGBT youths in India, or the constant uncertainty faced by the world's stateless population, with their own eyes.
As audiences continue to migrate from TV and the printed page to digital media, where video is becoming more dominant than ever before, Dulai knew there had to be a better way to take advantage of the web's potential as a storytelling medium.
That's where Verse, a new service that provides publishers with the ability to create interactive, video-driven multimedia experiences, came in.
"The idea of just copying broadcast TV makes no sense on the web," Dulai tells Folio:. "I had been living with this idea for awhile. When Verse popped up and said, 'Well, we've built the thing that you've been waiting for,' we just started looking for stories where we could take advantage of this platform."
Dulai and Newsweek photo editor Jared Miller eventually settled on Alexander Nazaryan's "Unmaking a Murderer," a gripping second look at the 1997 murder of New York City teacher Jonathan Levin and the alleged perpetrator, Corey Arthur, who maintains his innocence after 20 years behind bars.
"The big thing with that story was that you don't ever really get a compelling confession," Dulai continues. "You don't ever get that moment where he says to you, 'I did it,' or 'I didn't do it.' He kind of alludes to it; he beats around the bush a lot."
Dulai and Miller felt that Verse was the appropriate platform to convey that ambiguity; the ability to let viewers pause the video and dig deeper into the mountains of material compiled — including an interview with Arthur from inside prison — lent the whole experience a degree of transparency unattainable in conventional documentary filmmaking, where so much is left on the cutting-room floor.
"By taking advantage of all of the hotspots within Verse, we were able to let the viewer themselves explore what we were feeling, dig into the evidence the same way a reporter would and come to your own conclusion."
And viewers did.
"We were very surprised by the feedback that we got," Dulai continues. "The Verse folks were telling us that people were watching it for 20, 22, 25 minutes, which is insane. I've been doing video for newspapers and magazines for ten years, and we're lucky if people are watching it after the first minute and a half. So right then, I was like, something special is happening here."
The video produced by Dulai and Miller to accompany Nazaryan's story, titled "Undertow," is comprised of five chapters that make up a total run-time of about 35 minutes, inviting viewers to "sift through all the branching links and evidence as you form your own understanding of the events that transpired two decades ago."
At one point, as interviews with the incarcerated Arthur and those who knew Levin are shown, viewers are given the option to pause the video and view on-the-street interviews with Levin's students from the day of his funeral. At another point, viewers can use Verse's slideshow function to read an essay written by Levin about his experiences teaching at William H. Taft High School, which includes a mention of Arthur.
"There's a moment in the film where we invite the viewer to ask [Arthur] if he did it," says Dulai. "I think, for a lot of people watching, that's the moment they were waiting for."
Given the strong response from viewers, Dulai expects to use Verse to produce more interactive video experiences in the future. Like any other storytelling tool, however, the subject matter has to be right.
For its part, the Verse team — led by co-founders Antonio Bolfo and Michael Lanza — aims to position the platform as a low-cost, time-saving solution that can help publishers embrace rising demand for both video content and brand storytelling. Encoded in 24 different formats and counting, Verse is meant to be a turn-key solution compatible with current in-house technologies at publishers and agencies alike and offering a full analytics dashboard.
Fresh out of beta-testing as of July, the platform has already found clients in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Outside, The Washington Post, The North Face, and even the National Park Service. Given Verse's astronomical engagement rates — 63 percent, on average, according to the company — it's no surprise that publishers and brands are taking notice.