'Snow Fall' Isn't the Future of Journalism

The New York Times' miraculous mega-multi-media feature "Snow Fall" is a triumph of reporting, design, and creativity. It was immediately hailed by much of the Internet as the "future of journalism." It's not. And that's okay.

If you haven't read the feature yet, do. It's something like magic -- a visceral adventure story about a deadly avalanche that feels more like an interactive documentary that happens to have paragraphs than a newspaper story that happens to have interactives. Particularly ingenious is a section where a map traces doomed skiers' paths down the mountain face as you scroll down the corresponding paragraphs. Further along, an animated video follows the contours of the avalanche sweeping down the same glade, with a clicking sound whose frequency indicates the changing speed of the barreling snow pack. Not just clever. Utterly ingenious.

It's also exhaustively labor-intensive and rare for a reason. The project took six months for John Branch to report. The credits (like I said, it's more like a textual documentary than a news story) include a graphics and design team of 11, a photographer, three video people, and a researcher. As Andrew Kueneman, deputy director of digital design at the Times, told the Atlantic Wire's Rebecca Greenfield, "This story was not produced in our normal CMS ... We don't have the luxury of doing this type of design typically on the web. Now we just have more options and more tools."

Journalists will continue to find more options and build more tools to astonish us. Stuff like this will get better and better and slightly more frequent, one hopes. But it won't become, generally speaking, frequent.

There is no feasible way to make six-month sixteen-person multimedia projects the day-to-day future of journalism, nor is there a need to. Think about this morning. The top national news story is John Boehner's failure to corral votes in the House for a plan to avoid the fiscal cliff. I'm sure there are clever ways to render that story interactively, but, really, why waste the time? Practically everything there is to say about the House GOP intransigence, the odds of a deal this year, the future of Boehner as speaker, and the Democrats' next steps can be said really well with paragraphs. And maybe a timeline. To borrow a construction from venture capital: Text isn't broken.

It's my suspicion that "Snow Fall" won't change the architecture of journalism any more than movies changed the architecture of novels. Some stories yield themselves to dynamic visuals, and most don't, and readers are okay with that. In fact, according to Pew Research, young mobile readers prefer a "print-like experience" over tech features like audio, video, and complex graphics. The emergence of mobile devices reinforces the power and the ease of old, boring, columns of text. For all the ways the Internet is molding our brains, we seem to like reading stories just like our grandparents did.

Give "Snow Fall" the respect it deserves. It doesn't need to bear the augury of "journalism of the future." It's just a rare and sensational gift for readers in the present. That's quite enough.


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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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