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.
When it comes to traditional journalism values now trumping hoary digital truisms, it’s also worth looking at the question of velocity. Without paper, printing, or postage costs, the main limitation on how much you publish is how many stories you can wring from the day’s developments, broadly defined, each day. So a lot of us, seeing the success of a Huffington Post, tried to compete on volume. We soon realized that yes, we were running a lot of posts, but relatively few of them were attracting big audiences.
During a series of experiments, we played with the quantity-quality matrix: Could we draw more readers by publishing fewer posts, if those posts prized original analysis and creative thinking? The results suggest that, while there’s always the case of that quickie aggregation post that goes viral, readers do reward enterprise. It’s been refreshing to confirm that, on the web, as in print, quality, however it might be defined or measured, is the ultimate driver of success.