"It seemed to me to have all the right ingredients for a compelling story," The Age's Health Editor Julia Medew explained when asked why she decided to produce The Big Sleep - a viral interactive feature about an elderly Melbourne couple who chose to end their lives together.
Lessons from The Big Sleep is the focus of the first episode in a new podcast series called The Journalism Explainer which seeks to tell the backstory of journalism's reinvention - one episode at a time.
What makes a story about assisted suicide go viral online?
In episode one of the podcast series, listeners are taken behind the scenes of the production of The Big Sleep, the story about Patricia and Peter Shaw's pact to choose the time of their own deaths. The longform feature went viral online, triggering an outpouring of audience reaction - with many people sharing their own stories of assisted suicide, grief and self-determination.
"I was just getting flooded with phone calls, and text messages and emails from people that were really quite heartfelt, and some people were telling really personal stories about their own families … it just hit a nerve," Medew said.
Fairfax Media estimates that the story has now been read by more than 1.1 million people around the world, propelled by thousands upon thousands of social media shares, likes and comments.
It was a story told after the Shaws died, through their daughters' recollections and the accumulated memories the couple recorded during their decades together. And it was built on collaboration between Age journalists, editors, multimedia producers, and the video team.
Navigating ethical challenges and going back to journalism basics
Medew recently joined her Age colleagues, Multimedia Editor Felicity Lewis and Videographer Tom McKendrick, to record the Lessons from The Big Sleep, podcast, in which they detail the storytelling processes and ethical challenges of reporting such a sensitive and complex issue.
The lessons they unpacked included the ongoing value and power of traditional journalistic craft skills like writing and interviewing when producing high impact online content. "I think this was one of those stories where the story itself, the narrative, was so strong, and it was beautifully written, and really we didn't need a whole lot of bells and whistles," Lewis said.
McKendrick deliberately "stripped back" the filming and editing of a video interview with the Shaw's daughter.
"The emotions were still very much at the surface, as you would expect, but that came across...the rawness being more powerful than something highly produced," he said.
However, as explored in the podcast, the impact of The Big Sleep goes beyond audience reaction and reflections on journalism practice. The story has also had an important public impact at the political and policy levels, with the piece now feeding into a Victorian parliamentary inquiry, as doctors and politicians continue to make private contact with Medew.
Hear The Age team explore the story behind The Big Sleep in episode one of The Journalism Explainer. The podcast was produced by Julie Posetti, Fairfax Media's Head of Digital Editorial Capability, with assistance from Cormack Lally and Jake Evans. The Series is supported by Fairfax Media's Learning and Organisational Development division.