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 the
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.