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.

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.

The changing newsroom culture may be one of the best opportunities for transmitting mainstream journalism values to the new order of things. In the early web days, newsrooms were segregated. You had the digital nerds in one corner and the “regular” journalists at the center. At the Washington Post, digital operations were for years located not in the paper’s massive building near the White House but across the Potomac in suburban Virginia. At Wired, where I worked for seven years on the print side, I learned (to my shame, and only after I left in 2008) that the sometimes-disrespected web team referred to the corridor that separated us as “the Berlin Hall.” Even as recently as a few years ago, while executives were boasting about their digital-first cultures, a lot of folks on the web continued to feel like second-class citizens.

Those days really are over. Change didn’t happen just because people started sitting near each other. At The Atlantic, where the print and digital teams have long shared space, there has recently developed a culture of cross-training. Digital writers are doing stories for the monthly magazine; print editors are running web projects. One of our newest products, The Atlantic Weekly, is a slick magazine-style presentation, on the iPad, of some of our best digital stories that week.

We’re learning each other’s languages—and each other’s tricks. And that old gap between good and good enough is closing fast.

This post also appears at Folio, where Cohn writes a bimonthly column.