Old-Media Values in New-Media Venues

“Fast, hungry, and loosely edited” doesn't cut it anymore.
Shutterstock/Keko Photo Studio

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.

Presented by

Bob Cohn is the president and chief operating officer of The Atlantic. He was previously the editor of Atlantic Digital, the executive editor of Wired and The Industry Standard, and a writer at Newsweek. More

As The Atlantic's president and chief operating officer, Cohn oversees business and revenue operations for the company’s print, digital, and live-events divisions. He came to the job in March 2014 after five years as the editor of Atlantic Digital, where he built and managed teams at TheAtlantic.comThe Wire, and The Atlantic Cities.

Before coming to The Atlantic, Cohn worked for eight years as the executive editor of Wired, where he helped the magazine find a mainstream following and earn a national reputation. During the dot-com boom, he was the executive editor of The Industry Standard, a newsweekly covering the Internet economy. In the late 1990s, he served as editor and publisher of Stanford magazine. He began his journalism career at Newsweek, where for 10 years he was a correspondent in the Washington bureau, at various times covering the Supreme Court, the Justice Department, the FBI, and the Clinton White House.

In 2013, TheAtlantic.com won the National Magazine Award for best website. During Cohn’s tenure at Wired, the magazine was nominated for 11 National Magazine Awards and won six, including honors for general excellence in 2005, 2007, and 2009. As a writer, Cohn won a Silver Gavel Award from the American Bar Association for coverage of the Clarence Thomas confirmation process.

A graduate of Stanford, Cohn has a masters in legal studies from Yale Law School. He lives outside Washington, D.C., with his wife and two daughters.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Technology

Just In