The Guardian’s “NSA Files Decoded” and Multimedia Journalism

A new multimedia extravaganza from The Guardian takes an in-depth look at what Edward Snowden’s leaks “mean for you.” It comes replete with plenty of high quality video, a gorgeous custom page layout, and lots of doodads throughout. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that it’s The Guardian’s volley in the “Snowfall” game first served up by my former colleagues at The New York Times.

I’m pretty ambivalent about this new strain of multimedia journalism. As well executed as these early examples are, both this and “Snowfall” clearly cross the line from utilitarian storytelling to superfluous bells and whistles. Also, in my own personal, decidedly unscientific polling, of all the people I’ve met who marvel at “Snowfall,” no one has ever told me that they actually read it. (That’s actually not true; someone told me they did read it, but then again that person has three newspapers delivered to her doorstep every morning, so I would say she’s an outlier.) I suspect the same thing will be true of “NSA Files Decoded.” These kinds of things, I think, are meant to be marveled at more than they are meant to be read.


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On the other hand, there is the oft cited if not entirely convincing argument that these things push the medium forward, and help forge new modes of delivering and consuming journalistic content in a world in which there are no longer practical dividing lines between text, sound, video and behavior.

NSA Files Decoded 1
NSA Decoded 2

No doubt there is probably some merit to that argument except for the fact that, again, it doesn’t seem to me, anyway, that people are reading these things. Also, there’s the fact that both “NSA Files Decoded” and “Snowfall” so clearly take the form of what I like to call “The Editor’s Prerogative.” What is The Editor’s Prerogative? It’s when you take a piece of journalism and make it huge in scale and elaborate in delivery so that it is more in line with how important an editor thinks the story is than how new audiences actually want to consume it.

There is an important bit of subtlety in that last point. Plenty of Times fans lauded “Snowfall,” but it’s not so relevant, I think, whether a news organization’s existing audiences love these multimedia productions. These articles (or whatever appellation is more fitting of their varied nature) are so intensive in human effort and require so much lead time to produce that to publish something on this scale that new audiences aren’t actually reading seems to miss the mark. To be clear, if you are The Guardian or The New York Times, and people aren’t reading the text that you’re putting in front of them, you are not delivering the core value that only you can deliver, that your whole enterprise is based on. Also, it would seem, you are expending resources questionably. And it’s not like news businesses have lots of resources to waste these days.

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13 Comments

  1. Most people I’ve talked to about this today have read it, and enjoyed it, as did I.

    I think where this is successful is that it’s a topic many are interested, and it not overwhelming to scroll thru. There’s no dizzying, zooming fullscreen videos, and you can turn off the auto-play of the talking heads.

    A lovely piece, indeed.

  2. This gets at a question that’s rarely talked about in journalism circles: “Did people read it?” We often talk about how many people arrived on the page and how many people shared it. But the industry doesn’t seem to care about “completion” as a metric.

    I happened to complete Snowfall, but that’s because I’m a skiing fanatic and it’s a gripping story. The presentation had nothing to do with my engagement in that particular case.

    The goal of multimedia/visual journalism should be to coax casual readers into a topic that would otherwise intimidate them. I agree with Khoi that these types of articles might be having the opposite effect. People *play* with them, instead of reading them. But until we see the completion data, who knows …

  3. “It’s when you take a piece of journalism and make it huge in scale and elaborate in delivery so that it is more in line with how important an editor thinks the story is than how new audiences actually want to consume it.”

    I couldn’t agree more. In projects like these it seems editors think the more text the better, without even thinking how the reader wants to consume the story. I think this user-centered approach is really what’s missing in journalism these days. Journalists don’t think about what’s the best way to tell a story, and they should do that more (and should choose for the snowfall-option way less).

    I have to say that the NSA article is way more readable than Snowfall, it seems like the categorisation and the interactive elements are drawing me through the story.

  4. Have you seen this latest mixed media thingy from NY Times:

    http://www.nytimes.com/newsgraphics/2013/10/27/south-china-sea/

    Very engrossing, and the cream of the crop so far, IMO. It’s always been a balancing act to keep the FX from interfering with the text, but here I think the balance was found and the media helps with the story. It’s a new genre and they’re just beginning to figure it out. I see progress and am optimistic.

  5. Also, these articles rarely have advertising, which means they’re not making money from them, either.

    While I share your cynicism about them, I also maintain a hope that these represent editorial experimentation, and that as these experiments continue, the lessons learned from them (lessons in design, technology, and journalism) will trickle back into the quotidian online reading experiences we have every day.

  6. I remember talking with you about this two years ago, before Snowfall and the surge of interest in these kind of stories, and your take on this hasn’t seemed to shift.

    A few responses.

    Photography + choices in font, font size, line height, and editorial placement, all influence the way a story is consumed and interpreted in a print magazine. The same is true on the web. The difference is that for the past few decades, most publishers have decided to opt out of making these decisions on a story by story basis. They instead create a one size fits all template and I believe this is a setback in online publishing that we’re just beginning to recover from.

    It seems strange to define the success of these stories by words read when this is an incredibly difficult metric to actually measure, and the text is only one element of the story being told. It’s possible to skim through the text of ‘Snowfall’ and still get a meaningful sense of the story because the visual elements are just so evocative. This is something that is cool as it makes the story accessible to an audience that would never set aside the time to read a text only version. Some of the best stories I’ve seen this summer, like National Geographic’s Serengeti Lion ( http://bit.ly/HncDzP ) or nyt’s Silk Road, have few words and yet they are powerful experiences uniquely possible in the web browser.

    You criticize these stories for displaying editorial prerogative but I think this is exactly what we need more of online. News companies exist and survive because they get good at ordering the news. It makes sense for them to choose a single story to feature on the cover of their print edition just as it makes sense for them to signal that a single story on the web is more important than others. A one size fits all template cripples the ability of a journalist to express news judgment.

    I’ve certainly seen some publishers try to ‘snowfall’ their work and end up with something that is distracting but this just goes with the territory of trying something new. We’re in an awkward era of the web and I completely agree that these stories currently take way too many resources to produce. This is why scroll kit, and others, are working to create a better workflow to create handcrafted stories.

  7. @Fahey: While some of these pieces don’t carry advertising, the ad game for a publication is played in aggregate (with the narrow exception of occasional feature sponsorships). Meaning, if they are driving more traffic, link propagation, and interest, they are in fact bolstering CPMs and the ad picture for a publication overall.

  8. Chiming in to say not only did I read Snowfall, I read it twice (and I’m not a skiing fanatic). It was brilliant.

    The Guardian lost me, however, in having the videos play automatically during the scrolling process… it lessened the readability for me. I still want to decide when I interact with a piece.

    In Snowfall, you could read the piece without clicking on any of the interactions (except for the next page transitions) without losing any of the key points. The multimedia pieces only added. The Guardian piece, on the other hand, stuttered in its storytelling by putting MM roadblocks inline (and in the way) of the copy.

  9. You may be right in general or regarding “Snowfall”, but not in this case. I believe I have read most of it, but can’t be sure. This is not a single article, but several stories woven together. If those articles were presented separately in a list or section page, I would probably have read fewer of them. As an end result, I have consumed and digested more of this complex issue by wading through this mashup than I would have if it was presented as 50 separate stories and videos.

  10. What do we talk when we talk about “reading”!?

    “The Medium Is The Message”, right? So, what part didn’t the so called serious journalists get yet?
    Storytelling was always about the experience, the exchange, the communication, not the medium. Narrative IS NOT about reading printed texts, neither literature by the way. It’s about the power of narrative to be able to engage the audience in a compelling and immersive experience.
    Let’s not forget that it’s also an art. Do you think we should go back to use papyrus in order to have a pure and serious “reading” experience?
    “It’s the medium, the digital one, stupid”

  11. I read and enjoyed the entirety of Snowfall. I found it easy to read and the presentation engaging. I am not a skier, but I do enjoy this *type* of writing, usually from Outside Magazine.

    When reading on the web I almost exclusively read anything longer than a couple paragraphs in Instapaper. The Snowfall piece as an experience was more enjoyable than just the text.

    I’m 43, I bet that matters.

  12. I have worked on many pieces like this for the Chicago Tribune, and I think it’s all about return-on-investment.

    Some of these pieces received a lot of praise, but performed only a little better than similar content on the Chicago Tribune website, like “His Saving Grace” — which also took a tremendous amount of effort.

    Some of these pieces didn’t require herculean effort because we’ve been teaching graphics and photo folks to build them on their own. That’s been very productive, and lead to our best user-engagement story ever, “Chicago Under the Gun” , which was built by a photo editor and intern, and has over 100k page views and a *14 minute* average time spent on the page (split between watching videos and browsing photo galleries).

    Some of these pieces have way outperformed similar content on our regular website (on the order of 8x the traffic and 2.5x the average time that investigative pieces normally do), and demonstrably driven new digital subscriptions like “Broken Bonds” which also took a mighty effort but we’ve gotten far more efficient, as well.

    I think our experience is instructive: There’s no magic formula for making these decisions. Many times, the return-on-investment makes producing them a dubious proposition. But in other cases, these types of pieces can be dramatically more effective than just plopping some text into your content management system.

    Finally, I think there is something instructive about our most successful projects: They weren’t envisioned or led by software engineers. Our crime page and piece on debt are not as fancy as Snowfall or some of the Guardian’s work, but the people telling these stories know their audience and how to make compelling content for that audience. These folks aren’t making playgrounds, they’re using the tools at hand to tell a story well. When we do it that way, it seems to have a positive impact on our publication’s business.

  13. I am now reading the Guardian every day, largely because of their extensive coverage of the Snowden affair and related issues. Although I have barely scratched the surface of the “NSA Files: Decoded” piece itself, I have read a lot of their other coverage.

    But the fact that “Decoded” is there on their main page, always available when I’m ready to dip into it some more, is one more thing in the back of my mind, pulling me back to their site. And the graphic presence of that piece on the main page is almost like the eye of Sauron, unblinkingly reminding me of something that is very important to all of us, whether we wish it were or not.

    It may not be a comforting reminder, but it certainly is compelling, like all good journalism. Yes, indeed, the medium _is_ the message.

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