Reinventing the Newsroom

The Earth, the Moon and the Newspaper

Posted in Creating Context, Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on July 14, 2009

Forty years ago this week, the world was riveted by Apollo 11′s mission to the moon — a time nicely captured by the New York Times in a series of articles and this interactive.

Over the last couple of years the Times has become an interactive shop that consistently does superb work with photographs, video and interactives, and this one is no exception: You march through the videos narrated by veteran science correspondent John Noble Wilford, accompanied by a simple, effective animation of Apollo 11′s course. Archived PDFs of Times front pages and key articles sit below the animation; links to other videos and photographs sit below the main video. It’s simple and well-designed, and very deep without being flashy — the kind of interactive that draws you in by not seeming busy or intimidating and then encourages you to stay and explore at your leisure.

Part of the fun of this interactive is exploring the old Times front pages — and having Wilford as a guide. In an accompanying article (not linked from the interactive), Wilford looks back from the perspective of 40 years not just at the mission, but also at the experience of being the reporter covering it, and his struggles with self-consciousness in preparing to write what he knew in all likelihood would be the article of his career. (And maybe, given enough history, the article of all our careers.)

Wilford recalls how he wisely made careful notes of each milestone in the countdown, in case a scrubbed launch or an accident vaulted those moments to importance. Looking back, he notes that “I think of what I will write. I have never made a practice of composing a draft story in anticipation of a success, or alternative drafts for failure. I trust myself to draw inspiration from what happens, thinking spontaneity will serve me better and endow the story with the energy of immediacy. But now, phrases and disconnected sentences spill out of my wakefulness.” (In the story “wakefulness” is an automatic link to a health guide to sleeplessness. Ugh.) He recounts how he auditioned various opening sentences, putting them on strict diets, scratching superfluous clauses and dropping “American” as an adjective — “too restrictive and chauvinistic”. After a fair number of tries, he recalls, “I finally get to the irreducible essence in one short sentence: ‘Men have landed and walked on the moon.’ “

And so it is in the finished product: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s country of origin isn’t in the headline or lead, though Wilford does note the phone call from President Nixon and the unfurling of the American flag — kept unfurled on the airless moon by a metal rod at a right angle to the mast, if you ever wondered. Wilford writes from the perspective of an Earthbound observer awed by the adventure, with wonderful turns of phrase throughout: The astronauts “steered their fragile four-legged lunar module safely and smoothly,” the moon is “the first port of call in this new age of spacefaring,” and Michael Collins (who stayed in the orbiter above Armstrong and Aldrin) gets a sympathetic nod as “the man who went so far but not all the way”.

Looking back at the Times front pages from those two weeks, you think not just about how the world has changed and how scientific exploration has changed, but how newspapers have been transformed. Some things remain: Wilford’s graceful, powerful story would fit with the Times today (as Wilford himself, happily, still does), and while the Times’s elegantly hand-lettered 1969 graphic of the mission now looks like something out of Jules Verne (in a good way!), the 2009 animation is its logical, digital-age descendant. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine today’s Times reserving part of an epochal front page for a poem, or being stuck running a borderline-abstract photo from a TV feed.

Of course the Times is digital now. John Noble Wilford is a reporter in print, on the Web and in video. The paper can hold our attention with words, but also with a full paper’s worth of video, graphics, photos and stories from its own history. How would touchdown for, say, a Mars mission play in today’s world? Reporters would note those countdown moments not just in case something went wrong, but so they could file to breaking-news blogs and to Wikis. The audience wouldn’t just be staring at little TVs, but supplementing those reports, commenting on them and sharing them on blogs and Facebook pages of their own. Video would stream from mission control and possibly the Mars lander itself. Reporters, observers and probably an astronaut or two would Tweet about the mission, making #Mars the mother of all trending topics. (And you just know some TV news channels wouldn’t give “American” such restrained play.)

Looking back at the world since 1969, there are disappointments: The laptop on which I write this would have been the envy of NASA mission control, but there is no keepsake MEN WALK ON MARS front page to treasure; in fact, no one has walked on the moon in 27 years. (And the Second Avenue subway — you’ll spy a story about it in the Times’ back pages — still doesn’t exist.) While it’s wonderful that Wilford is still part of the New York Times, valuing such tenure and expertise has become a rarity in an industry battered by a brutal and bloody transformation.

But we’ll get to Mars one day, and when we do, the richness of the news experience will be breathtaking. The news will be reported from innumerable perspectives by a wealth of media outlets big medium and small. And the audience won’t just be devouring all the words, photos, audio and video it can get — it’ll be producing plenty of its own, too.

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