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Amid all the usual newspaper-industry storm clouds of paywalls and declining revenue, a small ray of sunshine appeared on Thursday, in the form of an eye-popping multimedia feature from the New York Times entitled “Snow Fall,” about an avalanche in the Tunnel Creek area of Washington state. It’s a visual feast, with embedded movie clips as background and an appealing design — and like many things the NYT does, it sparked both praise and criticism. In many ways, the feature was a little like the paper’s paywall: a feat of engineering that only the New York Times or another major media entity could succeed at, and also a double-edged sword that leaves behind almost as many questions as it does as answers.
Within hours of the feature going live, a piece at The Atlantic argued that Snow Fall was “the future of journalism,” because of its breathtaking design and marriage of text, video and images (and also because it works remarkably well on mobile phones and tablets as well as the web, which is rare with such multimedia efforts). Atlantic senior editor Derek Thompson, however, soon responded by arguing that the feature isn’t the future of journalism, but just a great experiment. As he put it: “There is no feasible way to make six-month sixteen-person multimedia projects the day-to-day future of journalism.”
That was one of the more common criticisms about the NYT piece: namely, that devoting six months or more to a project that involves 16 highly-paid professionals isn’t really something that many media outlets can emulate, even on a much smaller level. Sarah Lacy of Pando Daily described it as the Times “taking off the gloves” and trying to prove that big, expensive newsrooms still matter — in other words, a feat of strength. But does that help the vast majority of other newspapers? Not really (although some argued that we should just be happy that such features exist, instead of trying to see them all as the future of journalism).
The authors of the recent Columbia University report on the future of journalism made a similar point: namely, that the New York Times has done a number of things (including a paywall) that don’t really have any bearing on the woes of the rest of the industry, because it has resources (and a brand) that others can’t match. One benefit of exercises like Snow Fall, however — or of similar multimedia experiments like ESPN’s Dock Ellis feature and a recent PBS online report that made good use of interactivity — is that they might at least inspire other outlets to experiment more.
Snow Fall is also a great microcosm of the issues confronting the journalism business for another reason: it probably cost a substantial amount of money to produce, and yet there is no clear path towards recouping that investment. The series is being made available as an e-book through a partnership with Byliner, and some will undoubtedly buy it even though they could read it for free online, but $2.99 per copy isn’t going to go very far. And what about advertising? At first the web version had none, but now it does, and it is terrible — ugly, not very useful, poorly integrated.
Could advertising have worked with Snow Fall if as much creative time and resources had been spent on that problem as was spent on the design and plumbing? It’s impossible to know. But the Times might have been able to come up with something a bit better than standard web ad blocks advertising a kids’ ski camp — inserted in the most jarring way imaginable into an otherwise beautiful feature. What about a sponsorship for the feature? If nothing else, it helps to reinforce the point that producing appealing and useful content isn’t the biggest problem the industry has right now.