Friday, December 21, 2012

NYT's 'Snow Fall': The future of journalism? Wrong question.

The New York Times recently published a stimulating -- there's no better way to describe this sensory experience, believe me -- feature story/package. And everyone's talking about it.

'Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek' is brilliant for a number of reasons. It demonstrates one way to lay out a feature story online. It demonstrates the Times' leadership in this regard, certainly among newspapers, and its dedication to R&D. And it demonstrates the "multimedia journalism" that so many j-schools have been trying to figure out for so long. (Turns out there's a better way to do it than writing a print story and tacking on a related audio slideshow.)

But along with the praise -- and it was considerable; NYU's Jay Rosen called it "a break point in online journalism" -- came the criticism. "This is why American journalism is failing," tweeted a curmudgeonly Milo Yiannopoulos. It "isn't the future of journalism," wrote The Atlantic's Derek Thompson, setting up a straw argument he would quickly debunk with more nuance.

But nuance is sorely missing in all of this. Let's be clear: 'Snow Fall' is the future of digital storytelling, not the future of digital news. And that's a key distinction.

I'm tired of the word "journalism." What does it mean? It's the act of informing an audience about goings-on, as best as I can define it. It's not publishing (or broadcasting or...); no, that's the mechanism and business around it. And it's not reporting, though that's a key component of good journalism. Journalism is not monolithic.

To assert or deride the suggestion that 'Snow Fall' is the future of journalism, then, is to make a false argument. The he said, she said backlash to the issue is rife precisely because everyone is taking a narrower definition to the concept and running with it. How frustrating!

(It's precisely why criticism of "bad journalism" for blogging and "conflicts of interest" when lobbied at magazine editors rings just as hollow. Blogging? Not necessarily reporting! Magazines? Not necessarily news organizations!)

So let's embrace 'Snow Fall' for what it really is: an exceedingly interesting and discussion-provoking way to tell a story. It's not about the money, and it's not about the business model.

It's about the story.

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