Examining Trends in Online Journalism
Digitally exclusive content platforms, such as The Huffington Post’s iPad magazine Huffington, have met mixed reviews and moderate success, at best. Mere months after launch Huffington switched from a paid subscription model to free. In a rapidly shifting digital ecosystem, publishers are constantly searching for new ways to capitalize on more connected consumers. More often than not, however, the technology moves faster than they can. What does the pattern of modern media consumption reveal about the future of journalism?
Emerging platforms, including Medium, Narratively, Matter (now part of Medium), and even more mainstream publications like Fast Company and Quartz, are using an evocative form of storytelling, called long form or immersive storytelling experiences, to effectively communicate information with readers. Built specifically for digital platforms, these immersive experiences have gained prominence as a result of The New York Times’ enormously successful piece Snow Fall that covered the 2012 Tunnel Creek avalanche. The piece won a Webby award and the author John Branch won the 2013 Pulitzer for feature writing. Snow Fall was praised as “the future of journalism.” In fact, the piece was so successful for The New York Times that it recently announced the creation of a new, long form digital magazine, described by executive editor Jill Abramson, as “an immersive digital magazine experience.”
But it’s not all positive; Snow Fall garnered heavy criticism too. Headlines like “Sorry, ‘Snow Fall’ isn’t going to save the New York Times” and quotes such as, “If this was the future of journalism, there would be no future of journalism” flooded the web. Much of the criticism questioned whether reproducing this type of experience with any consistency would be possible. It took The New York Times staff of 16 highly paid professionals more than six months to put the piece together, including hundreds of hours of web development to make the resulting multimedia experience possible.
Digital Media Consumption is Rapidly Changing
Snow Fall’s immersive storytelling sparked heated debate over the “speed, volume, rough and tumble and– like the tech world– ‘good enough’ iteration,” versus the “old media world” that we used to know. It’s helpful to first understand some recent technology trends to grasp how media consumption is shifting.
- For the first time, a majority of Americans [56%] now own a smartphone 
- 29% of adults in the U. S. now own a tablet or eReader, up from just 2% in 2009 
- 13% of total internet traffic now comes from mobile devices, up from just 1% in 2009 
- “The amount of global digital information created and shared – from documents to pictures to tweets – grew 9x in five years to nearly two zettabytes in 2011;” this number is expected to increase exponentially to nearly eight zettabytes by 2015 (NOTE: 1 zettabyte = 1 billion gigabytes) 
What does this mean? Essentially, we are increasingly dependent on mobile devices to access our information, yet there’s much more content being created than ever before. This poses a significant challenge for content creators, as we continue to face information overload and competition for our attention becomes fiercer by the day.
It’s especially interesting to break down the consumption of news online into two distinct categories: real-time news and immersive storytelling. Most daily headlines we read and articles we skim are considered real-time news, while immersive experiences include pieces like Snow Falland content on emerging platforms mentioned earlier. While there are certainly many more types of and definitions for the content we consume online, breaking it down this way sheds some light on the constant struggle between our fast-paced, overloaded lifestyles and our desire to connect with stories.
Creating immersive, multimedia content, using elements including large imagery and video, bring the reader in and allow them to really connect with a story in a very active way. Services such as Atavist’s Creatavist platform allow for mass production of these types of stories as an alternative to custom-coding them, which makes this type of storytelling much more accessible. What remains to be seen is whether our information overload will force us to skip over long form content like Snow Fall, or if our deep, human connection to stories will once again shift the patterns of media consumption and allow digital immersive storytelling to flourish. As J.K. Rowling said, “There’s always room for a story that can transport people to another place.” I tend to agree.