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On The Future Of Feature Writing


Multi-chapter, multimedia, highly immersive digital features from publishers seem to be becoming quite the thing. The latest is the rather lovely ESPN Grantland story of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which follows on from their similar feature on The Long, Strange Trip of Dock Ellis. Then there was the beautiful Pitchfork cover story on Natasha Khan which wonderfully integrated text, imagery and audio.


And this example from Outside magazine, which graphically tells the story of an early ascent on Everest, is notable for incorporating third party commercial sponsorship (albeit in a pretty clunky way).

The best known example is the New York Times' Snowfall of-course, which integrated video, images and graphics in a seamless, flowing narrative. And as The Atlantic described it, did it in a way "that makes multimedia feel natural and useful, not just tacked on".

Inevitably some have lauded Snowfall and its ilk as the 'future of journalism', but others have pointed out (mostly on Twitter at the time) just how time and resource intensive such projects can be. How can Snowfall be the future of journalism, they say, when it took six months and the involvement of 16 people to produce?

I think that kind of misses the point. To paraphrase The Atlantic, Snowfall (and others like it) are not the future of journalism, but that's OK. Snowfall recently won the Pulitzer for feature writing. This kind of reader experience where one element flows seamlessly into the next is uniquely suited to longform feature content (and to creating immersive feature experiences on tablet devices), and I'd argue far less suited to punchier, news driven content. Snowfall was produced as as the result of an off-and-on project, and an almost documentary-style approach outside of the realms of that which was possible with the normal CMS.

As the skills of journalists develop, as the shape of the skillset in media organisations expands to encompass new design, video, and graphics skills, as commissioning proceedures change, as integration with third party tools improves, as CMS's develop to enable a greater, more intuitive use of multimedia content, this kind of immersive experience will only get quicker and easier to do.

In the meantime, it's a good time to experiment and learn. Andrew Kueneman, Deputy Director of Digital Design at the NYT said of Snowfall: "In the long term, we also walk away from an effort like this with many valuable lessons in design, development, team collaboration, editing, promotion, etc.—lessons we can apply going forward, and ones we could only learn while working on deadline."

So whilst this kind of thing might not be the future of journalism, it is surely at least part of the future of journalism, and a potentially quite significant one at that. This kind of mixing of traditional writing skills with techniques that are more akin to filmaking enable a far richer pallette for features writers. Given that, I'm really surprised that we haven't seen more magazine publishers experimenting with this type of approach.

HT @Mrjamescarson for the Outside link

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