Snow Fall has Actually Become a Verb

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In journalism circles, ‘snow fall’ has become a verb. Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of the New York Times, explained to a crowd at the 14th International Symposium on Online Journalism, what the story Snow Fall meant to journalism. She said, “To snow fall now means to tell a story with fantastic motion graphics and video and every kind of multimedia riches, but ones that are absolutely organic to the storytelling itself and are not, as in the past, like accompaniments to print journalism.”

Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek is a story by New York Times’ sports reporter John Branch that retraces the steps of 16 skiers who head into Washington state’s Cascade Mountains for an afternoon of backcountry skiing, but end up triggering a massive avalanche. His story is a detailed narrative of the skier’s actions leading up to the ski trip through the avalanche itself – a period of less than 24 hours – but it also explains the science behind avalanches and the conditions that caused this one in particular.

Snow Fall appeared in print as a special section, but what Abramson is describing is the immersive experience the New York Times created online for the story. On December 20, 2012 the newspaper published the six-part long-form narrative with integrated videos, photographs, slideshows, audio and motion graphics. The story opens with a full-page looping video of snow blowing across a barren hillside. The view immediately sets the tone and Branch’s story scrolls up from the bottom of the screen. As the reader makes his way through, vertically scrolling, various elements are interspersed with and linked to the text, including videos, still photographs, slideshows, and audio. Additional full screen graphics are set in motion when the reader scrolls them into view. Once thestory and mugs

Small images appearing alongside the text would link to slideshows with larger images
Small photos appearing next to the text (top image) link to slideshows, which open in a new larger window.

reader reaches the bottom of the page there is an option to click through to the next chapter of the story.

The release of Snow Fall made an immediate and lasting impression on a variety of communities – readers, journalists, designers, and programmers. Each of these groups valued and interpreted the significance of the story in different ways.

 

Readers

New York Times readers were riveted to the story. According to a Q & A with New York Times staff, in the first six days after Snow Fall was published it had 3.5 million page views and 2.9 million visitors, with almost a third being new visitors to the New York Times site. It generated 1155 comments on the site itself from the day it was released until nine days later, December 28. Not only did readers from all over the United States respond, but readers from around the globe. The comments ranged from one person in Brazil commenting on how wonderful the presentation was to a Seattle skier questioning the choice to ski that day, while a New Yorker brought up the psychological aspect of how ‘group think’ affects these situations. According to Elif Koc, writing for FutureNYT, the story received 10,000 shares on Twitter in the first week and the story is still making the rounds with tweets appearing as recently as mid-March.

Obviously, readers responded to the story and continue to do so. The story itself made an impact, but so did the multimedia presentation. Additionally, those in the reader community often overlap with the journalist, designer and program groups.

 

Journalists

The relationship between journalism and the Internet has been evolving since the late 1990s and is still a work in progress, but Snow Fall had Rebecca Greenfield from The Atlantic Wire asking whether this might be the future of online journalism. She explains that the integration of video, photos, and graphics was done in such a way as to “ . . . feel natural and useful, not just tacked on.” Om Malik from Gigaom says that “ . . . Snow Fall-type products are a brand new media, a whole new style of storytelling and a model for 21st-century journalism . . .” The media responded by giving its highest awards to the project – a Webby Award, Peabody Award, and Branch received a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. However, the project, which was built entirely outside the Times’ Content Management System, took six months to complete, including some interruptions to work on other stories. Additionally, a total of 17 people are credited on the website itself, and this doesn’t include the editors involved in the process. Though many journalists appreciated the execution of the story, they questioned the ability of small newspapers to complete such projects and doubted the capacity of even the New York Times to repeat the effort. The newspaper itself made this point in their Innovation Report from 2014 writing, “We have a tendency to pour resources into big one-time projects . . . and overlook the less glamorous work of creating tools, templates and permanent fixes . . . We greatly undervalue replicability.”

 

Designers

Though Branch’s writing was award winning, the design and layout of Snow Fall clearly made it stand out. Andrew Kueneman, the Editor of Digital News Design, explained in a Q & A with New York Times staff how they attempted to manage the path of the reader by using scale, positioning, animation and other design elements to match the flow of Branch’s story. Graham Roberts, a Senior Graphics Editor at the newspaper, describes in the same Q & A how choosing the appropriate colors and pacing of the graphics was critical for readers to not view them as distractions. A fly-over view of the mountains that appears early in the narrative moved slowly to accommodate readers just getting introduced to the story, while a reenactment of the avalanche was completed in real time to make the point of how long these skiers would have endured the power of the snow.

Roberts describes some of the more technical details on his website, including how the avalanche simulation was created with actual avalanche data from Swiss scientists, LIDAR data, Maya and After Effects. So the graphics, just by themselves, are impressive and became another extremely important aspect to the entire package.

 

Programmers

The powerful design and graphics however, could not have happened without the help of the New York Times’ programmers. Jacky Myint, a multimedia producer working on Snow Fall, explains in the Q & A how they decided very early on that they would not offer the same online experience across various browsers and devices. Kueneman also points out:

“We took advantage of platforms that could handle more complex and rich behaviors, and we made sure less-powerful or less sophisticated platforms received the best experience they could handle. Not so much a trade-off, but we definitely made design and presentation decisions that we would classify as editing.”

The Montfort and Bogost discussion of the constraints and affordances of platforms certainly comes into play here. While Myint was designing for the main experience on modern web browsers, her colleagues were working on the design for other devices like iPads and iPhones, as well as older browsers. Myint explains further that they were all working from the same codebase, so when she made a change it trickled down and affected the work of the others. Indeed, the code on its own is a significant piece of work. Myint, using HTML5 and JavaScript lists a series of jQuery libraries and plugins she used in the design. Brook Ellingwood, taking an especially Kirschenbaum view of the code underlying Snow Fall, breaks it down to its individual pieces on his website. He finds 13 different libraries and plugins. Some of the tools Myint describes are included in Ellingwood’s list, but he finds others, such as ‘The New York Times Multimedia Desk,’ which contains no comments to define what it does, and multiple tools for supporting the playback of HTML5 video and audio. Ellingwood also points out how the programmers provided numerous ways for the code to interpret what browser a person was using, the supported web fonts, whether it was being viewed on a desktop or mobile device, and the current orientation of that device.

 

Conclusion

The multimedia presentation of Snow Fall clearly made an impact on all audiences, but the design for what Myint terms the “main experience” is clearly the most important to preserve. Various aspects of the multimedia elements are missing or altered when viewed on an iPhone and iPad. Slideshows were missing on both, the opening videos to each chapter did not work, and graphics were treated differently on the iPad. The Internet Archive did capture the story, but unfortunately the videos do not play. In the future, it will be critical to maintain this full experience developed for desktops and laptops.

Additionally, saving as much documentation on the code as possible would be beneficial. Since the online story was published, a couple of companies have released design tools that would mimic the experience of Snow Fall. Ryan Lawler of Techcrunch reported on one such tool called Scroll Kit. The co-founder of Scroll Kit, Cody Brown, recreated Snow Fall using his tool and explained how others could replicate the experience in under an hour through a video he posted to YouTube. Though the New York Times sent him a cease and desist letter, this type of work by programmers to create templates for easier web design would be useful to media outlets who lack the resources of a big company. It would also be useful for the Times itself, who point out their own need for templates and the desire to improve the mobile experience. In order to improve and build upon the code written by the staff, preserving the documentation of it is the first step toward this end goal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 Replies to “Snow Fall has Actually Become a Verb”

  1. This is smart and well written. Right from the start you establish what is significant about the piece. I think there is little doubt that this exemplar is likely to be of interest in the future. You have done a great job articulating some of the different potential users who would want to access the digital copy of Snowfall.

    Along with that, I think it is clear that a lot of the value of the work is tied up in how it was created and produced and the reflections of people in this area about what matters about it. So it sounds to me like you have a solid case for a rather “high touch” approach to curation that is associated with the curation of individual works.

    It’s great that you have identified the extent to which the work is different on different platforms and contexts, so part of this is about understanding how it performs in different spaces.

    It strikes me that it might be useful to try and reach out to some of the folks behind the project to see if there is much documentation surrounding the creation of this, or the backend content for it that they either have or that might be up in some of the developers public open source code repositories.

    Given that a good bit of this is rather performative, that is a lot of it has to do with how it renders an plays when you use it, this might be an interesting case for exploring using Webrecorder https://webrecorder.io/ as a too. Along with that, I think there is likely a good case for thinking about doing a screen capture approach to making a digital video recording of what it actually looked like on a particular computer. That way, whatever else is saved, there is a video of what it rendered as that can be used to triangulate what it looked like if it becomes challenging to get the work to perform right.

    1. Yes, I think capturing the performative aspect will be very important. I like your suggestion and I came across this Youtube video a couple weeks ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mz9SaZOCopI which contains video of how the website looks, but it only covers a portion of the story and the woman narrating is speaking Dutch for most of it. But, the idea behind it – capturing digital video of the site itself is a good one. I looked at a preview on Webrecorder, but most of the multimedia isn’t getting captured or doesn’t play. I like your suggestion and plan to explore this idea more, but I just need to look into other tools for doing it.

      I did just email the main developer for the project, so I will see if I hear anything back. I think I should probably email one of the main graphics editors/designers and perhaps one of the digital design editors that seemed to be heavily involved in the overall project. If I have no luck there, perhaps the best bet would be to archive the webpages detailing the development (interviews/stories, personal websites, blogs, etc)?

  2. What an interesting topic to focus on! It is strange to think about how this style of journalism began, now it just seems so “normal.” It makes me wonder how the future of online journalism will evolve from this level of multimedia. It is a shame that the full effect doesn’t work on iPad and iPhone, or even in Internet Archive. Have you thought of an approach to preserve the multimedia separately from the article itself?

    1. I hope this type of long form online journalism can survive. Journalism in general is suffering, but hopefully the high quality work will last. I did think about preserving the multimedia separately from the online story itself, but I kept coming back to the importance of the entire display and flow of the story with all the parts integrated into it. I also figured that the New York Times will eventually donate the multimedia work to an archive/library in the future. Most newspapers work out donations like this, so I thought I should focus on the whole online experience. That being said, there are a lot of moving parts to this and preserving the multimedia on its own is a very good option and is still extremely useful.

  3. Nice job, Kerry. Snowfall is a touchstone for online journalism. As such, it deserves to be preserved along with whatever record we have of how and why it was created.

    I don’t think we really know how to do this yet. Digital preservation is still in its early days, which means we need to keep an open mind about saving online news content. As you point out, the Internet Archive, which has done more than any other institution in the US to preserve web archives, still has some challenges in terms of capturing the full (or at least significant parts of the) experience available today.

    On approach is to gather several kinds of capture information and then tie it together. For example, pull in the XML from the news organization’s CMS along with web scraping and perhaps PDFs, snapshots, video recordings, etc. This is obviously not something that can be done for every story, but as we get better at curating online journalistic content, it seems reasonable that this kind of collecting could be part of what we now call “special collections.”

    Thanks for your contribution to awareness and thinking in this area. I welcome your participation in the JDNA and Dodging the Memory Hole community at http://www.rjionline.org/jdna.

    Edward McCain
    Digital Curator of Journalism
    University of Missouri Libraries
    Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute

    1. Thank you for your note Edward! As a former newspaper photographer, preserving this work is very important to me. I started out still shooting film and experienced the crossover to digital, and eventually moved into audio slideshows and video. There is a clear need for work in this area and I am glad University of Missouri is making a dedicated effort toward it.

      I like the idea of pulling in the XML from news organization’s CMS – that is something I had not thought of. That seems like a great idea for any researcher in the future, but would also be useful for current journalists dealing with a variety of systems that were used at different points in time. A media company I previously worked for created an in-house CMS – just wondering if an in-house project might be more difficult to pull content from or cause issues down the road versus more commercial CMS product?

      The idea of snapshots and video recordings, especially for such an interactive story like Snow Fall that is dependent on the flow of the story and the graphics, seems especially valuable. But, you are right, preservation of this type of content is very much in its early days and will require some exploration.

      Thanks again for your post and I look forward to news from the JDNA and Dodging the Memory Hole.

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