Break Thru is an interactive story experience detailing a dynamic Pittsburgh hip-hop scene that struggles to get exposure a half-decade after Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller made it big. I designed and developed the project in February-March 2017.
We wanted Break Thru to be visually immersive – full-screen images and videos, on-brand typography, clean spatial design – while incorporating audio clips throughout the narrative. Everything needed to be responsive. This would not be possible in our traditional content management system.
I stepped outside of our CMS to develop a custom experience from scratch while coordinating a team that spent months reporting to find an artistic movement living on the underground in Pittsburgh. We also wanted to make a platform for aspiring artists in the city, so we created the Pittsburgh Hip-Hop Showcase.
I art directed, designed and developed Break Thru while coordinating a talented team of journalists: Reporter Julian Routh wrote a compelling narrative after embedding himself in the clubs, studios, hangouts and homes of the city's best rap talent; The project was brought to life with awesome visuals from photographers Lake Fong, Stephanie Strasburg and Steve Mellon; Developer Laura Schneiderman wove the artists' audio clips throughout the project to give it an authentic feel; Artist Daniel Marsula put on his street-artist cap to give us a cool tag for the title.
Julian worked tirelessly for more than a month, collecting over 20 sources from rappers and producers to club owners and DJs. Securing interviews with Jimmy Wapo and Hardo – Pittsburgh’s most promising stars – were challenging as Hardo committed to a late-notice home interview and Wopo cancelled a post-performance talk but rescheduled for a sit-down at a downtown boutique.
Stephanie Strasburg and Lake Fong were nimble enough to get good content on short notice with Wopo and Hardo, respectively. Strasburg’s b-roll video of the kids gawking at Wopo from outside the boutique was a perfect companion to Julian’s story lede. Steve Mellon captured the vibe we hoped for with his intro and outro videos while grabbing artistically strong still photographs in between.
At first, I was drawn to the simplicity and efficiency of the fiorito.nl design. Every bit of information on the site has a purpose. I chose red to compliment Wopo’s wardrobe and to match the vibrancy of the music. Steve Mellon hit the target with an opening video from behind the crowd. That’s exactly how I envisioned starting the project.
How could we do a hip-hop project without music? We had to have sound, but because of newspaper guidelines on profanity, we needed to be careful with the music we chose. Julian got the permission of the artists, then selected more than a dozen “clean” tracks. I designed the music play buttons so that they appear in a rail on desktop and inline on mobile.
We believed that this story would find its footing on social media, so we created a rollout plan for sharing. Julian created a dozen images, gifs, videos and quote cards optimized for Facebook and Twitter that he shared with the newsroom on the day that the project launched. He also supplied his story sources, all of which have thousands of followers on social media, with sharable materials. We created a schedule for Facebook and Twitter posts on the PG account to take advantage of peak traffic times.
The Pittsburgh hip-hop showcase invited anyone 16 and over to write a rap with the chance that it would be published on post-gazette.com. We had never put on a showcase before so there were a lot of questions: How would this work? What kind of Terms and Conditions should exist? I reached out to the PG marketing department – which is versed in throwing events and contests – and they were very helpful in pointing us in the right direction. After receiving many submissions, we selected six finalists and produced music videos with the artists for a special online presentation:
We believe Break-Thru accomplishes what it set out to do: shed light on a local music scene through an engaging interactive experience with thoughtful reporting, writing, photography and design.
The project has recorded over 10,000 page views with an average time on page of nearly 5 minutes. On social media, it has been shared with more than one million people.
Through conversations with our team and on social media, members of the Pittsburgh hip-hop community have expressed gratitude for the story and validated its message.