Snow Fall: Finally an articulation for the digerati of what a big, expensive newsroom can do

By Sarah Lacy , written on December 21, 2012

From The News Desk

The Web is buzzing about the New York Times' epic article, post, piece... let's just say multimedia extravaganza, "Snow Fall," today. Those of us who like to get paid well to do good work-- wherever we are and whatever kind of journalism we're doing-- should be fist pumping. Finally, a journalistic triumph that lean just couldn't pull off. If Marco Arment's The Magazine is a zippy new electricity powered motorbike that bloggers can't stop raving about, the New York Times just pulled up in Tesla and crushed it.

Now, you might say, that's not a fair comparison. Arment isn't trying to produce work like this. But for people who keep citing lean as the future of journalism, something like this should be taken in for a moment. As Derek Thompson of The Atlantic wrote this morning the story "Snow Fall" isn't the future of journalism as people wildly proclaimed. At least any future we're seeing play out. This is deeply, deeply rooted in the past and there are a handful of newsrooms in the world who could have produced it. Sure Atavist will say it has done stuff like this. But not this.

The future of journalism is about speed, volume, rough and tumble and-- like the tech world-- "good enough" iteration. Even blogs like ours that produce comparatively less, with editing and illustration and reporting still move at a rapid pace compared to the old media world. Every story we do could have been made better with a huge old media machine behind it. But typically that improvement would be marginal, and most readers wouldn't notice or care. That's why blogs work. Readers would rather have the information clearly and quickly, than read the fruits of seven editors arguing over a nut graph.

But that is in no way what this is. More than 11 staffers worked on this piece and it took more than six months. When we talk about the New York Times and the Washington Post having newsrooms of hundreds and hundreds of people, it's usually in the context of it being an albatross. But this is what you can produce when you do. And yeah, maybe we're all paying attention because it was the New York Times that did it. But that brand, reach and distribution is part of the power of an expensive legacy newsroom as well.

This isn't the future of journalism. It's a legacy-- and still troubled-- brand like the New York Times taking off the gloves, no longer pretending it can compete with nimble blogs and throwing one hell of a punch at all of those lean newsrooms around the country. This is what a several hundred person staff and a massive brand name can do, bitches!

If this was the future of journalism, there would be no future of journalism. Because almost no one can afford it anymore, and many of the ones who can are too scared for their survival to try. It's like Google fiber or the self-driving car, but in journalism. It's showing off as much as it is good work.

Other large newsrooms are in a downward spiral of trying to squeeze more and more out of their teams, and sending lame memos on how to blog, not using the heft to their advantage. The New York Times has a rare-- and endangered- mix of ballsiness and resources and considerable Web savvy for a old, legacy brand. To paraphrase "Swingers," the New York Times looked at its claws and fangs and went over and ripped that bunny apart, while other big national brands are clumsily batting the bunny around.

I was at a dinner with the Times' executive editor Jill Abramson last month and asked her about that presumed "bloated" newsroom. She'd just pointed out that the size of the newsroom hadn't diminished through the hard times-- something almost no legacy media organization can brag about. I asked if she really believed there was no fat to be cut. I came up in old media and always saw a lot of fat. She clarified that the Times was now running  huge Web organization out of that same newsroom-- so while the staff hadn't been cut, it had been greatly diversified in skills. Later, she said everyone she hires is a storyteller first and foremost-- even the guys who design charts. It shows.

This isn't the future of journalism. But it's may be the future of old media showing us-- not continuing to annoyingly lecture us-- on why big, expensive newsrooms actually matter even in a digital age. And they did it in a way that even designers and techies can understand.

There will always be journalism purists who get chills walking into the New York Times building. I'm not one of those-- nor are a lot of the people who either defected to new media or grew up in it. This is one of the only times many of us have truly felt envy for being part of a massive, massive beast.

I think one day new media newsrooms will have the resources to pick and chose big hits like this. But we're a long way off from that. And we have to stop celebrating lean and user generated content at all costs, if we're gonna get there.