Recently, media people have returned to talking about our love or hate of the following phrases:
“Is ‘Snow Fall’ the future of journalism on the web?” and
“Can the web save narrative and long-form journalism?”
With those in mind, let’s correct some mistaken assumptions about what’s happening right now with reading and storytelling on the web.
• We can now access the web from phones and tablets.
It is a groundbreaking discovery that we have more time to read for pleasure when we are not at the office.
• The “save for later” ecosystem, demonstrated by Pocket, has allowed readers to take content with them.
We can access and read stories across multiple sittings, online or offline.
And yes, we feel good sharing things that are smart and thought-provoking.
But what, exactly, are we sharing? Mostly, when it comes to #longreads, we are still reading and sharing print magazine and newspaper stories.
I looked at the past four years of submissions to #longreads on Twitter. Overall, the community has shared stories from more than 13,000 different sites, and the top 200 sites make up just 51% of all submissions. That is an incredible amount of diversity, and part of what makes this open community so special.
But when you take a closer look at the Top 200 sites shared on Longreads, 65 percent of them were still websites for print magazines or newspapers.
The resurgence of long-form storytelling on the web is still being subsidized and supported by print businesses and print revenue.
To me, this means a few things:
1. Print is (still) not dead.
Also, many magazines don’t seem to have a problem giving away their print stories for free on the web. (More on this later. I have feelings.)
2. We still have a long way to go in terms of making the web accommodating for long-form storytelling that is native to the web.
I mean this both economically and structurally. The last year has seen a small influx of online publishers jumping into narrative storytelling, including Vox Media (The Verge, SB Nation, Polygon), Gawker Media and BuzzFeed, joining The Awl, The Morning News and The Rumpus, and startups like Matter, The Classical, Aeon Magazine, and Narratively.
That said, it’s still hard for a boot-strapped publisher to justify spending the kind of money required for these stories. Big-pocketed publishers can do it because it keeps their writers happy (their version of Google’s 20% time), and builds the credibility of their brand as one that produces ambitious, outstanding work.
I’ve mentioned that my only gripe with The New York Times’s “Snow Fall” is that the design ultimately overshadowed the actual narrative and the reporting by John Branch and the rest of the NYT team. In the end, to Choire Sicha’s point, it didn’t answer any larger sustainability questions for narratives on the web, and “Snow Fall” still ran with traditional IAB banner ads that will never cover the cost of producing it.
It’s unfair to ask the Times to solve everyone’s problems with one feature. But it’s important to remember that, at its core, “Snow Fall” was still, partly, a print story. The print newspaper is a big part of what pays “Snow Fall”’s bills. And by prematurely deeming print “dead,” we’re failing to understand how important it really is to the web right now.