May 13, 2013 · 4 minutes

On Saturday, Om Malik argued that the New York Times can compete with BuzzFeed by investing heavily in multimedia stories like “Snow Fall,” which generated more than 3.5 million page views and a mild media orgasm. In fact, Malik said, the New York Times should spend $25 million to produce 100 “Snow Fall”-like stories. The paper can then use the innovative format to insert new kinds of ads that go “beyond the dumb, commoditized advertising the Times is forced to put on its website.” This approach, reckons Malik, is the “future for news organizations like the New York Times.”

It’s easy to see where Malik is coming from here. “Snow Fall” was a big deal; a triumph of design and a bold move expertly executed. It was a very well told story – good enough to win its author a Pulitzer, in fact – and one of the few examples of a major publication bringing its considerable resources to bear in a new media environment in a way that leaner, digital-centric upstarts would find hard to replicate.

But Malik’s excitement about Snow Fall is probably misplaced. Snow Fall’s success will be difficult to replicate at such scale. It is likely that a large proportion of those 3.5 million page views came from people who were curious about the multimedia adventure, people who, urged on by mouth-agape reviews, clicked through from Twitter or Facebook to see what all the fuss was about and then moved on. Whether or not the story was read 3.5 million times is another story. How many of those visitors would keep coming back time and time again to such stories, which, remember, also take a very long time to read? How quickly would the novelty wear off once readers got used to the construction? How long would it take before readers look at one of these proposed 100 snowfally stories and think, “Oh, it’s another one of those Snow Fall things”? 

Multimedia storytelling, even done very slickly, is not the answer to the New York Times’ future, nor is it, as Sarah Lacy has pointed out, the future of journalism. Even if the Times figured out a way to produce such stories with fewer than the dozen staffers and six months that it used for Snow Fall, it would still just have an addition to its suite of products, not a replacement for the ones that are expensive to produce and can’t pay their own way, and not the silver revenue bullet that will somehow solve all its financial problems. Such multimedia stories would be just another of many things the news organization can do well.

In fact, the New York Times is not alone in sophisticated multimedia storytelling, which proves that just jazzing up its longform stories with additional video, audio, image galleries, and such like will not be enough to stop it bleeding staff or slashing budgets.

For an example of just how much the news organization can’t rely on the new form, just look at Atavist, a longform journalism startup that has been doing Snow Fall-like multimedia stories for two years before Snow Fall even existed. Atavist, its founder Evan Ratliff has told me, is a hits-driven business that makes most of its money from its platform, Creatavist, which it licenses to companies so they can produce their own multimedia stories. While each Atavist story has a $2.99 cover price, the stories don’t generate enough sales to sustain the business, multimedia wizardry notwithstanding. Given that experience, does a $25 million investment in 100 stories make sense for the New York Times? Probably not.

On a personal level, I’m also skeptical about the ultimate value of the multimedia story. As both an avid consumer and regular producer of journalism, I remained unconvinced that multimedia aspects always enhance a story. I consider image galleries, audio clips, videos, and interactive graphics all useful and fun, but often they are as equally distracting as they are additive. The power of a story alone is often enough to captivate one’s attention and imagination. I find that staying in a state of “flow” is a much more satisfying reading experience than constantly having to deal with distractions that are often just glorified footnotes. Just because it’s multimedia, doesn’t mean it’s a better story.

For the New York Times and other media organizations to thrive in the future, they need to avoid over-optimistic prognostications that would suggest a new form of storytelling will be their savior. As its latest haul of Pulitzers suggests, the Times is already doing a good job on its product, which is journalism. The thing it really needs to address is the business model. Sadly, the truth there is that it can no longer rely on advertising to the extent it did in the glory days of newsprint. 

As the Pew “State of the News Media” report pointed out, not only are print advertising revenues declining sharply, but most digital ad spend is going to Google and Facebook, both of which have greater reach and more defined demographic and behavioral data that any news organization. The outlook for mobile is grimmer. Six companies account for 72 percent of mobile display ad market share, according to Pew, and none produces news. No multimedia ad for Land Rover in a “Snow Fall” story is going to fix that. 

So, the best way for the New York Times to “fight BuzzFeed and reinvent its future” is to find a way to rebuild its business for a post-advertising era. Unfortunately, there’s no answer as simple as “do more Snow Falls” for that giant problem. Maybe it’s metered paywalls; maybe it’s pricey subscriptions and a smaller newsroom; maybe it’s online education and ecommerce; maybe it’s events. One thing for sure that will not solve that problem, however, is 100 variations on a one-hit wonder.

[Picture by jchapiewsky]