Narrative projects can be done using primarily free resources, especially if you own the media content (or use materials in the public domain) and you already have the skills you need to produce a project. There are many sources, both within and outside academic institutions, that are designed to provide equipment, support, and funding for bringing information to wider audiences.
Paying for expert labor (or your own time away from other projects): Narrative projects are often time intensive. Individual researchers and students may be able to “self-fund” this by taking time away from other projects, but it is something to keep in mind if you don’t have a lot of free time or you need to document the time you spend on particular processes for grant purposes.
Many narrative projects also require special skills or experience with unusual tools. Projects like story maps have good documentation and can be done with minimal training, but video or audio editing will require you to spend a lot of time both to learn and to execute projects, and can be expensive to hire someone else to do.
The costs for this kind of expertise vary. Some people charge by the length of the project and others charge a flat fee or hourly rate. Editing rounds may or may not be built into the cost. To get a sense of the range of costs where you live, search online for freelance rates and look for online portfolios that include work similar to what you want to do.
One way to keep costs down for this is to work with a student or someone who is just learning the process. While they will charge less, or even do the work for free, you will need to be willing to spend longer building it, and to have limitations in how complex your project can be. As these people are also usually looking to build their own skills in particular subsets of the tool or media type, be very clear about how you will deal with questions of artistic vision.
Tools, Programs, & Special Equipment: One benefit to hiring outside help for your project is that the expert will probably already have access to the tools, equipment, or programs needed for the project. For expensive equipment or programs like those used for creating movies or complex animations, this may actually save you money -- and it can be easier to get grants for hiring expertise than for buying things like video cameras, toIf you are performing most of the labor yourself, though, you can also do things to minimize your costs. Choose a free tool or one you get through your institution, and check out the software that came with your computer (most computers include some form of free basic video editing). The list of tools is too long to include here as there are many possible tools for different kinds of storytelling, so pick a type of tool (like mapping or animations or video) and start looking at online reviews. If you find a tool you like but it costs too much, try searching “free version of ___” to see if a similar tool is available for free -- free tools are often not advertised widely. Many tools have multiple tiers of use, and even paid tools often have a trial version available that can give you limited access for a short period of time -- which may be all you need! You can also see whether you can get access to a special program by going to a computer lab. These are most common in academic environments, but some makerspaces and other institutions like libraries sometimes have video, audio, and image processing software available for use onsite.
Some projects require special equipment. This is most common for projects that require capturing new video or audio footage, where you may need cameras, lights, microphones, and so on. Advanced video processing and animation or modeling may also require higher-level computers with special graphics cards or extra processing capabilities. Before you buy equipment like this, especially for just one project, ask around! Institutional libraries IT departments may have equipment you can check out, or you may be able to borrow it from an art, communications, or journalism department. There are also companies that rent this kind of equipment, especially if you are in a city.
Media Rights: Narrative projects are more likely than other project types to require you to get special permission to use source material. You should review the rules around fair use and educational use policies, but in general, you will need to be especially careful about images and other media you use that are going on a website or being used in another public forum, especially if you will charge for access or receive any other financial benefit. These costs can easily run into many thousands of dollars, especially if you are using multiple works. Aspects like reproduction size, audience size, and platform can all play into the cost.
Even if a media source lists a cost for using their media in your own work, it is always worth asking before you pay. Some institutions will lower or waive costs for projects that are educational or non-profit, or that are seen as beneficial to the community or good for the institution that owns the media in some way.
If you can, seek out media sources that are free. You can search for media that has been released under a Creative Commons license. There are multiple types of Creative Commons licenses, but most allow you to use the work in a non-commercial project as long as you credit it. Many historical images, maps, and texts are also out of copyright, so older resources are sometimes more cost-effective (but remember, if you are using a photograph of something, that the copyright attaches to the photograph and not just the thing represented in a photo). Maps produced by US government institutions, as well as those by many other countries’ governmental institutions, are available to use for your project without an additional cost.
Platforms & Storage: In addition to the cost of tools you use to build your project, remember to account for costs associated with sharing/distributing your project and keeping it accessible. That might mean something like making copies of a movie on physical media or paying for hosting for a website (especially for a large multimedia project, which may take more storage space than free hosting sites allow). When you’re accounting for costs for this, remember that you will need to store and host the final project, but you will also need to store all the files and resources you used to create the file in a secure place. That storage without hosting is much cheaper than hosting something publicly accessible, but it can be a surprise if you’re not expecting it, especially since that cost will be ongoing.
Controlling Costs for Narrative Projects:
The cheapest projects will be ones where:
You already own the media.
The media you want to use is in its final form or close to it (minimal need for edits or acquiring new media content).
You don’t need to hire someone to help you use a program or tool.
You use a tool or program that is free or has a license through your institution.
The end project is relatively short and the file size is small (limited multimedia amounts).
You can use an existing platform to share your narrative without paying for storage or hosting (like YouTube, an institutional server, sites like WordPress, or some tools’ own public platforms).
Funding: Because narrative projects frequently occur in a different stage than other digital projects, different sources of funding are likely to be available. Academic researchers are often more accustomed to finding research funding than finding funding for publication or supporting access to materials, but many of these sources exist, especially if the project is intended for a public audience or helps with a particular societal issue.
Familiar grant bodies like the NEH, NEA, Mellon, and ACLS all have digital publication or digital access grants that can support some narrative projects. However, you should also consider organizations like the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation. If you are working on a topic connected to a particular type of nonprofit, check with organizations that work on that issue.
Continue reading: Creating Storyboards for Narrative Projects