A simple phrase summarizes what many think is the underlying business strategy problem leading newspapers down the path of financial failure: “Newspapers have tried to protect the paper instead of trying to protect the news.” In other words, this analysis concludes, newspapers only see the new medium through the filter of their old medium. Instead of embracing online and learning how their business could take advantage of its unique capabilities, pundits said, they simply tried to recreate their existing product in a digital form with text articles, still photos, and lots of display ads.
There’s no doubt truth to that in many cases, but not every paper has taken the digital turmoil laying down. It’s been several years since the nation’s preeminent source of journalism, the New York Times, shook itself from the online doldrums and began exploring new online subscription models. In some respects, it seems to be working as rising subscription revenues crossed declining advertising revenue in 2012. But that wasn’t enough to prevent the Times from cutting 30 newsroom positions in December.
But even as the cuts were announced, the paper was preparing to unveil a digital masterstroke: Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, which was instantly hailed as a triumph of online storytelling and perhaps even a milepost in the path to future journalism. As Times Graphics Director Steve Duenes described it to Jeff Sonderman on Poynter.org, the design tried to “find ways to allow readers to read into, and then through multimedia, and then out of multimedia. So it didn’t feel like you were taking a detour, but the multimedia was part of the one narrative flow.”
Self-reported numbers from six days after publication said the piece had received 2.9 million visits. Unsurprisingly, a lot of people interested in digital strategy sat up and took notice. Outsiders can’t know if direct revenue from those visits will be enough to recoup the investment in the story (and it certainly won’t save 30 newsroom positions), but clearly there is an audience for this kind of storytelling.
The hard part for many managers and the organizations they work for is in knowing how to pull off something like this. Resourcing models often continue to follow old media strucures, separating creators, strategists, and technologists into different silos. Reading descriptions of how “Snow Fall” came to be, it’s clear the Times blurred the boundaries, treating design and technology as integral to strategy. I had this in mind a few years ago when I created a blog I call “Blue Collar Rocket Science”: What seems like rocket science when seen from inside a strategist silo just looks like plying a trade when seen from within a technologist silo. Open lines of communication can produce a “Snow Fall,” but often strategists don’t even know where to start to understand what they need to be talking to technologists about.