Written for CMS.100 Introduction to Media Studies
Not long ago, it was the rule for web designers to cram content “above the fold.” Scrolling beyond the top of the page was too much to ask from audiences with supposedly notoriously short attention spans. Today, however, that action is automatic. The ubiquity of scrolling, growth of general Internet usage, and advancements in web technology have enabled the rise of a new form of online storytelling.
Digital-first stories incorporate multimedia in immersive, interactive, or even personalizable ways, often connecting scroll behavior to changes in content. Many articles integrate data to an unprecedented degree. Gone is the adage that journalists should only report, not make, the news. Often, data reveals or even is the story. As digital-first journalism evolves and proliferates, it is important to study the message of this medium—in other words, how it will shape society.
When I talk to others about this web-based flavor of journalism, I invariably start with, “You know those New York Times interactive pieces?” As it turns out, the NYT helped pioneer this genre with “Snow Fall,” a Pulitzer- and Peabody-winning feature covering the 2012 Tunnel Creek avalanche, which killed several prominent skiers. Published in December 2012, the industry cited the piece as an example of the “future of online journalism” and even coined the term “to snowfall,” or produce works of a similar style. Skeptics expressed concerns about the dubious merits and necessity of what could easily veer into over-designing, but by and large, the imagery, maps, and other non-textual elements of “Snow Fall” were deemed both cohesive and constructive to the story—and that was what made this piece so groundbreaking.
Throughout the past decade, many practices of digital-first journalism have persisted but evolved. “2C: Beyond the Limit” was published in August 2019 by the Washington Post as part of a recently-award-winning explanatory series on climate change. As with “Snow Fall,” large imagery features prominently, maps and data visualizations are embedded, and the text is characteristic long-form journalism. However, “2C: Beyond the Limit” also includes a graph that users can customize to show data from their county. It applies a parallax scrolling effect to the captions of its full-screen photos. It even allows readers to convert every temperature in the article from Fahrenheit to Celsius (or vice versa) with one click.
The multimedia and web-enabled elements in these articles do more than merely support the stories. Philosopher Marshall McLuhan coined the frequently misinterpreted but apt phrase “the medium is the message.” A medium is any extension of ourselves: hammers extend our arms, wheels extend our legs, and language allows our thoughts to live outside our brains. McLuhan believed that every medium caused changes in the “scale or pace or pattern” of human activity, and those changes—independent of content mediated—are the medium’s message. Railroads “accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities… work[,] and leisure. This happened independent of the freight” or location of railways. What, then, is the message of digital-first journalism?
McLuhan arrived at “the medium is the message” out of a concern that we tend to focus on the obvious. We often fail to notice structural changes that occur subtly or gradually. Though it’s impossible to predict precisely how digital-first journalism will impact society, it’s essential to pay attention to this particular medium. To produce stories, journalists must assume the best interests of the public and collect, omit, and assemble information accordingly. However, this same “paternalism” in technology—for example, letting algorithms make decisions for autonomous vehicles—is controversial. How we resolve this tension will affect the future of individual autonomy and the role of transparency in mass media. In the meantime, comparing “Snow Fall” (2012) and “2C: Beyond the Limit” (2019) reveals insights about how elements of the medium, as well as the production process, shape stories and reader experience today.
One of the first things a modern-day reader might notice about “Snow Fall” is that it consists of multiple pages. These “chapters” are reminiscent of chapter books and the experience of following a newspaper article across non-consecutive pages, both examples of print media. Pagination may be appropriate for “Snow Fall,” to symbolize that each phase of the skiers’ trip is distinct and requires some activation energy to initiate. One of the chapter titles, “The Descent Begins,” also hints at that. Most articles today, however, are all on one page, including “2C: Beyond the Limit.”
Scrolling is relatively passive compared to clicking a link, “Next” button, or forward arrow. As one product designer puts it, “Scrolling is a continuation; clicking is a decision.” This difference means that splicing together sections of a paginated story would not merely yield the sum of its parts—it fundamentally changes the story and how readers engage with it. “2C: Beyond the Limit” is linear—even clicking on the prompt to “see [temperatures] in your county” scrolls the user down to that section of the article, as opposed to redirecting to a different page. Lack of pagination also allows for a less interrupted, but more pre-defined experience—there are only two ways to move: up or down. In that sense, the creators of the piece exert greater control over the story.
Both “Snow Fall” and “2C: Beyond the Limit” contain several elements that allow for immersion, interaction, or personalization. “Snow Fall” contains several full-screen automatically playing videos, each with a conspicuous replay button in its top-right corner. They’re unable to be paused, perhaps enforcing the lawless, rapid nature of avalanches—there’s no opportunity to slow down, examine, and calmly respond to the situation. Today, this content would probably have been implemented with scrollytelling, so that if the reader wants to see a previous part again, they can scroll up, and the changes will undo themselves. Interestingly, “Snow Fall” does have a section that uses scrollytelling to display the descent paths of various skiers. This technique highlights individuals’ routes alongside their in-text mentions, seamlessly integrating the visual and written content. The descent paths section and videos do not involve much interaction, but they make the piece more immersive.
“2C: Beyond the Limit” includes a graph of annual temperature change between 1895 and 2018, with a dropdown menu explicitly calling on readers to “find your county,” personalizing the experience and making the effects of climate change more tangible. This element involves a higher level of interactivity, though still within the constraints of what data the creators of the piece have made available. It allows for a different type of immersion than “Snow fall,” as users might get caught up in trying out different counties.
Extensive usage of data in a story especially raises the issue of paternalism, “making decisions in the interests of the audience,” which is the norm in journalism but questionable in data science. The end of “2C: Beyond the Limit” includes the data analysis methodologies, as well as a credits section with photos and brief biographies of five people. In contrast, the byline in “Snow Fall” only has one name. Demonstrating transparency, a tenet of the open-source technology community, is an increasingly common ethical value and trust-building tool in digital journalism (Appelgren).
The production process of digital journalism also influences the medium. Many industries are in flux as they adjust what they know about how to train journalists, organize newsrooms, operate sustainable business models, design technical infrastructure, and establish and maintain ethical principles. Nearly a decade ago, “Snowfall” took eleven staffers across the graphics and design teams over six months to investigate and produce. Digital Designer Andrew Kueneman described how the project’s requirements were beyond the scope of their usual content management system. Though CMSes have increased the efficiency of newsrooms and augmented media outlets’ output and presence, they can also limit risk-taking. However, a 2017 report from the Google News Lab states that “a fifth of data journalists use in-house tools and software.” Experimentation can lead to new tools that shape the default “templates” of the future. Beyond that, “2C: Beyond the Limit” utilized outside resources, including data from a nonprofit research group, showing that such collaborations are an influential force in journalism today.
“The medium is the message” stemmed from Marshall McLuhan’s observation that all mediums induce societal change, but we often fail to pinpoint those structural shifts early. Technology and data are revolutionizing journalism today, but also posing questions about the level of authority creators ought to have in their communications. If we react with skepticism to autonomous vehicles, should we give personalized news feeds the same treatment? Is it still appropriate to trust that the articles we see, especially when seemingly supported by gigabytes of data? Was it ever? “Snow Fall” and “2C: Beyond the Limit” are two exemplars of digital journalism, created almost a decade apart. Examining how their multimedia and data-driven elements contribute to immersive, interactive, and customizable stories brings us closer to extracting the message of this medium.
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