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.
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.
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.