Once upon a time, there was old media. It was reported, edited, top-edited, copy-edited, and fact-checked. It was good.
And there was new media. It was fast, hungry, loosely edited, quick to fix the mistakes it often made. It was good enough.
For a while, readers and journalists alike seemed willing to accept that there might be different standards. People expected less of digital in the early days; it was, everyone said, “just the web." Accuracy and fairness and good writing and smart design—all that mattered, of course, but it was sometimes hard to square those demands with the implications of everyone’s favorite analogy, that the web was “the wild west.”
These days, the web seems a bit less wild and more polished. Everywhere you look, there are signs that publishers are importing traditional journalism values to the constantly shifting digital environment. The web continues to do what it does better than print—delivering on-the-minute stories with a conversational tone to an always-connected audience—and the blog post, as one distinct unit of digital journalism, still offers what Andrew Sullivan called in 2008 “the spontaneous expression of instantaneous thought…accountable in immediate and unavoidable ways to readers.” But increasingly, digital journalism does its business while embracing certain core beliefs typically associated with old media.
Take design. As recently as five years ago, the web was mostly text. Rivers and rivers of text, without much thought given to breaking up the grey. Over time, digital publishers discovered that even a little bit of old-media design love—a sharp photo or illustration, a crisp chart or map, a well-crafted pull quote—can make a story more appealing (and more shareable in social media).
Then came Snowfall. That, of course, refers to the digital treatment that the New York Times gave to its 10,000-word story in December 2012 on 16 skiers caught in an avalanche in Washington state’s Cascade Mountains, three of whom died. The article, with its panoramic photos, embedded videos, interactive satellite maps, slideshows, and sidebars, set a standard for splashy web treatment of a big story. (Or, as some have argued, not such a big story.)
Within weeks, snowfall became, in a kind of comic-desperate way, part of the vocabulary in digital circles, as publishers sought to create their own snowfalls and advertisers asked to be adjacent to (or integrated within) snowfall stories. Of course, few publishers have the multimedia and developer resources to pull off this treatment; even the Times has been understandably stingy about doing the full snowfall for more than a couple of stories. Still, more and more outlets are creating their versions of this type of digital storytelling. From ESPN and Rolling Stone to Pitchfork and The Verge, the results can be impressive.
It won’t be possible for digital publishers to bring this kind of ambition to every web story, but of course that’s not the goal. Even the glossiest of magazines reserves the most resourceful design for cover stories and other major features, while front-of-the-book stories rely on templates. The point is that enterprising treatment in the service of storytelling, once the province of print, has edged into the digital mainstream.