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Summary:

The NYT’s multimedia project Snow Fall was a huge success, attracting big audiences and lots of plaudits. But the paper can do even better — it can build a new business from this type of project, and change the definition of journalism in the new century.

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If I ever run into New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson (unlikely as it might be) I will sure as hell let her know that she is absolutely right to be excited about what her paper did with Snow Fall, which in my opinion was one of the first truly post-tablet storytelling experiences. At the Wired Business conference in New York earlier this week, Abramson said:

“Snow Fall” is now a verb.  “Everyone wants to snowfall now, every day, all desks,” she said. Reporters are waiting for time to “Snow Fall” their bigger story.  She said that the story originated from the sports desk — and took “months and months and months” of time —  but Snow Fall-type projects can come from anywhere.

Snow Fall, in case you missed it, was a multimedia project that included a gripping six-part story by John Branch, one of the Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning writers who was intrigued by the growing number of skiing fatalities. The stories were presented with interactive graphics, videos and bios of various snowboarders and skiers. It is brilliance personified and was rewarded with 2.9 million visits and 3.5 million page views within the first six days after publication. (The Times doesn’t reveal the total traffic it received since its release in December 2012.)

Snowfall cover image

Snow Fall (and other such attempts) represent a great opportunity and the future for news organizations like The New York Times, especially as they are right now in a losing battle for attention with upstart competitors that include everyone from BuzzFeed to The Huffington Post. If you are the New York Times management, it is time to take a gamble: spend $25 million on creating 100 Snow Fall-like projects.

Money for something and clicks for free

In fact, it is important that our media brethren at the Times think even bigger than that, eventhough it would also mean taking a more prosaic, mercantile and business-like perspective to what they do.

They need to NOT think about Snow Fall as an add-on — as something that makes traditional content more web- or mobile/tablet-friendly — and instead treat it as a brand-new kind of media product that is created especially for the multiple device/many-screen world.

I have been involved with online publishing for a very long time — 18 years to be exact. And in that time I have seen the incumbent media make the same mistake again and again. They’ve often tried to adapt the content they’ve created for newspapers and magazines to the online world. And when they did embrace online, even then the online reporters were asked to do the same thing they did for the newspapers or the magazines.  (The Times, to its credit, published Snow Fall first online, and then in print three days later, which suggests it had a pretty clear understanding of the digital potential of a project like this.)

Yes Dorothy, the Internet is different

The internet is and will always be an immersive, interactive and communal platform. Many publishers continue to treat it like the old two-dimensional medium. Every time we have some major news events, such as the recent Boston tragedy, the social web brings the consumers of content into our newsrooms and makes them part of the process. It is one of the reasons why most of the big media still don’t get blogs. Sure, some writers like David Carr or Paul Krugman are an exception, but look at some of the Times blogs and you see they are just news stories (or features) retrofitted for the blog medium.

Federal agents descend on the home of a suspect-at-large in the Boston Marathon bombing. Getty Images

Federal agents descend on the home of a suspect-at-large in the Boston Marathon bombing. Getty Images

Blogging is a way of editing the world and presenting it to my community, and that means everything from photos, links, tweets and videos, in addition to sharing my raw thoughts and fully packaged features, scoops and even basic news. Every act of sharing tells you what I am interested in and what I am willing to learn and talk about.

There is a failure in the media business to understand that the medium and the content are intertwined much like those lovers on the walls of Ajanta and Ellora caves. It was one of the many reasons why Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily failed to impress me. It didn’t really invent a new form of storytelling for the tablet.

Now take all of that as context and then understand why I keep harping on the point that Snow Fall-type products are a brand new media, a whole new style of storytelling and a model for 21st-century journalism — one that doesn’t sacrifice the best of our profession, but takes it by the scruff of its neck, and drags its bloated, aging body into the new world and revives it with a shot of adrenaline.

Mr. Excel meets Ms. Editor

Getty Images

Getty Images

However, that is only part of the story. The trick is not to get married to just the oohs-and-aahs of the Snow Fall, but to think of it as a business opportunity, much like the way Hollywood studios creatively monetize their blockbusters. My question is why can’t newspapers and magazine companies take the same approach and build a business model that actually factors in various opportunities that something like Snow Fall can offer?

So instead of starting with a newspaper story and adapting it to different formats, the Times should start with the Snow Fall. If you look at Snow Fall closely, you can see a cohesive approach to content, one that adapts and morphs to not only the medium of access, but to diverse business models — much like the movies.

Snowfall 2

From my own experience at magazines, I can tell you producing features isn’t cheap and can easily cost tens of thousand dollars, depending on the publication. The longer the lead time and higher the profile of the story, the bigger the costs. So from that perspective, spending some more on the post-tablet version of the feature shouldn’t break the bank.

The current editorial effort is to create something for a day or two of attention in the newspaper and hopefully for tens of thousands of pageviews. Why not start with the apps and e-readers (both paid), then follow up with the web version and then get to the newspaper. While apps and selling e-reader-oriented content might involve the Times learning new tricks, the company doesn’t need to change much for the latter two channels.

Blame my enteprenurial tendencies, but when I was experiencing Snow Fall, all I could see was stunning brand-advertising opportunities, that went beyond the dumb, commoditized advertising the Times is forced to put on its website. Why not embed a tasteful Land Rover ad or throw in one for Moncler? That is native advertising that actually allows organziations like the Times to live by their ethos and maintain the fidelity of their brand.

Hollywood, Baby

Now, let me explain why the Times can do it. And for that I will point to Hollywood again. One of the reasons why Hollywood studios succeed with the multi-tier approach to their “product” is because they do their best to ensure that they create an optimum experience. And they can do that with the right story, the right stars, the right production values and, most importantly, they have distribution. And gobs of money.

Hollywood-vs-print-media

The Times and other big media companies have a lot of those same capabilities. They have great stars (real people, for god sake, are better stars than anything Hollywood can produce — see the Cleveland samaritan), they have great storytellers (editors and reporters, whose Pulitzers are testimony enough) and they have the ability to create the right production values (photographers, visual artists and designers). The Times also has a big audience – 35 million monthly visitors to their website in the U.S. alone, according to comScore – which means it has a lot of attention, which can be channeled effectively to promote new concepts.

Distribution Matters

Just as blockbuster movies get a lot of attention from media, Snow Fall got a lot of attention from the rest of the media community. Those millions of monthly visitors and lots of advertising space on print means distribution isn’t really a problem. And despite the financial headwinds, many of them — including the Times — still have a lot of money to try and finance a few dozen Snow Falls.

It isn’t clear how much money the Times spent on Snow Fall, but let’s just assume it was a small fortune. (Yes, I asked them and got this response: “We can’t disclose details about costs. Really, this is a newsroom effort. The business side works with the newsroom, of course, to provide the infrastructure and technology they need to tell stories in innovative ways.”)

And in exchange, it got a few million page views, but I am guessing they also built a nice backend infrastructure to create more such projects. As a result, the next Snow Fall is going to cost less, with most future spending going to the creative: words, photos, other multimedia elements and design.

So what will the Times (or someone like them) need to get it done? Simply put, a departure from the incumbent thinking, embracing today’s reality and re-imagining the work flow of a big city newspaper. In other words:

  • Re-imagining its business model to factor in the reality of today’s world and forget the legacy of newsprint.
  • Create a new breed of “producer” who can switch between Excel and content.
  • Create a whole new breed of a journalist — one who has old-school values but also the ability to tell a story that works in many mediums of today.
  • Build an editorial creative machine that works differently from a print-centric editorial group.

Now, if they can actually overcome their angst — and it hurts me to say this — they can change the conversation in the media business away from the increasingly shallow content and instead bring the focus back to quality and in-depth journalism, which is their stock in trade. If the New York Times management were feeling bold, it would put $25 million to work on creating 100 other Snow Falls and basically change the reader’s expectations of what long-form digital content and journalism are in the new century.

So if you want to fight BuzzFeed and HuffPo, there you go, Jill!

  1. You are not being objective just because you liked Snow Fall.
    Snowfall was something that could have been done a long time ago , nothing innovative about it.It got some attention because ,someone finally made a multimedia article that’s more than an embedded video+text.
    Snow Fall is what an online magazine should be but NYT is not a magazine.They can become a mag but that would be a fundamental change that kills what NYT is. So, it can be a side project and there are plenty of options on how to market it.
    They should better what NYT is today, starting with the layout, headlines ,content discovery.
    If i made a news site today i would try to find a way to put as much information in as little text as possible and maybe offer the option to expand the item and read more details on it.
    Twitter does , in some ways , that but maybe it can be done better.
    There is just too much information, it takes too long to acquire it and social networks only add to that burden. Long form … anything might become too niche for someone like NYT.
    Mobile devices are another problem, less bandwidth ,smaller screen,more on the go reading.

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    1. @Realjjj, all good points, but perhaps you’re missing the point — Snow Fall is intentionally a long-form narrative feature that offers something more than the typical news sound bites.

      Like Om’s perspective here, I too appreciate the complementary role of creative and substantive feature content produced by legacy news organizations.

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  2. Om,

    I enjoyed your post.

    I think your overarching message to NY Times is to experiment (and perhaps think bigger).

    Regardless of the industry, it’s tough for the old guard to have the strength/chutzpah to experiment and push for change.

    In the case publishing, that’s what leaves the door open for the BuzzFeeds, HuffPo’s and GigaOms of the world.

    Still, I would love to see the NYT take your advice. Still contend some of the best storytelling in journalism takes place in the NYT Dining section each Wednesday.

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    1. Hi Lou

      Thanks for your thoughtful message. I am betting that facing such a dire future that faces many publications, the Times will do make bold moves. I think they have enough data on their hands to know that it is a good way forward and also the right way forward.

      It also is a good way to think in terms of augmenting their current information ecosystem which is good, but faces growth challenges.

      That said, in addition to Food, I would too like to see their Fashion and Lifestyle sections get in the act as well.

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  3. Raf Weverbergh Saturday, May 11, 2013

    I agree with realjjj that the NYT is not a magazine. And, for that matter, magazines are hardest hit now. There is just too much content.

    I also wonder if you don’t overestimate the power of the Hollywood model. Hollywood studios are all trying to find “franchises” and “tentpole” productions that they can milk forever in derivative sequels (Die Hard V or whatever it was named) – the closest thing they can find to selling a subscription.

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  4. Didn’t I read that Snowfall originated in the newsroom ( with reporters and storytellers) not in the vast digital kingdom the Times carries? Maybe that’s a part of the recipe?

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    1. From what I have read it was a joint effort where the story was bounced to the other departments and turned into a special package.

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  5. I love the Newspaper/Hollywood analogy, but have you considered that Tiers 3 and 4 might be the other way around. I’m not sure if it makes a substantial impact on how we think about this model, but from an audience size and ad/direct revenue perspective I think it might be more useful to think of the web in terms of broadcast and newsprint – a “status” product – in terms of PPV.

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    1. Mikey

      I think the problem is that the world today thinks about 3-4 first. I
      argue that in order to leverage what they have in abundance (for now)
      — attention and distribution — the paper has to look at 1 & 2 and
      then seriously figure out how to grow that and make it their primary
      focus.m

      The 3 & 4 are part if the legacy thinking — my two cents.

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  6. The NY Times and the rest of the journalism world needs to stop yap-yap-yapping about Snow Fall and start DOING more work like it. The navel gazing — here at the inflection point between old and new media — is utterly endless. Stop talking about it and get to work!

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  7. There was a great talk at the BarCamp News and Information last month where Joey Marburger was talking about Snow Fall and what the Washington Post has been doing with the idea lately — most notably their Cycling’s Road Forward piece.

    As a front-end developer, it’s fantastic to see responsive and html5 techniques being applied to one-off pieces — really letting each have a voice all its own, and displaying beautifully regardless of the medium.

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    1. @george

      Have you seen more such pieces come to fore. I remember reading one about a 101 year Marathon runner in ESPN. Other examples you like?

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      1. Not terribly many, I’m afraid. I know that the development team over at the Washington Post was thrilled with the outcome and seemed to have plans for more posts along the same line. I’d suggest pinging Joey or Yuri Victor for more on that if you’d like a followup, they’d be able to provide much more detail, I imagine.

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        1. Thanks for sharing that link George

          Sent from my iPad

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      2. Specifically Yuri’s comment here:

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        1. Thanks

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  8. @Om could you expound further on “Create a new breed of “producer” who can switch between Excel and content.” As someone interested in both the business and editorial side of the product, I found this specific point you made very interesting.

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    1. @PK

      When I think of this new type of executive, I think of how Hollywood has producers who find the balance between creatives and commercial. Similarly if there is a person who can define what are the creative needs, what is the budget and figure out how best to come up with the optimum product factoring in the constraints.

      It is not a publisher. It has to be someone who is part of the creation process, but at the same time, like the janus man can go and address the commercial part of the endeavor.

      Frankly, this is making me write a different post. But need to think this through.

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  9. Patrick Conroy Saturday, May 11, 2013

    The New York Times needs to branch out. The “Truth” was lost in their reporting of our nation’s news long ago. It obviously fits the type of reader in that part of the country…low information readers.

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  10. I disagree with the comment by realjjj…Snowfall would have been far more expensive and less interactive just a short time ago. The Web and web controls have come a long way and I agree with OM that Snow Fall showed the future. We wrote it up just after it came out:

    http://successfulworkplace.com/2012/12/23/the-new-york-times-showed-us-the-future-in-snow-fall/

    We said in our piece that Snow Fall showed us the future and I stand by that, only wishing that the NYT had launched 100 Snow Fall’s, as Om suggests.

    Are you listening, NY Times?

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