Snow Fall: A Preservation Plan

homepageSnow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, the online story by New York Times staff, clearly set an example for online journalism. The article itself won a Pulitzer for reporter John Branch and the overall online story won a Peabody and a Webby. The reaction from readers, journalists, designers and programmers has remained strong since its release in 2012. Considering the story’s impact, it will be important to retain as many features of the multimedia project as possible.

The Website

The online experience of Snow Fall is an immersive multimedia show with numerous moving parts. It includes photographs, slideshows, motion graphics, video interviews, and additional looping videos that are used as graphic elements. However, all of these components may behave differently, or possibly not work at all, depending on the platform you are using. Based on interviews with New York Times staff, it is clear that the main experience on modern web browsers was the primary concern. In order to experience the full effect, a user needs to be on a desktop or laptop.

As a result, the need to maintain a complete view of how the multimedia pieces work within the overall story is critical. A useful first step in this direction, is to check how successful the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine has been to preserve the entire website. The project has been crawled numerous times over the last several years and the Internet Archive has done an incredible job of capturing the majority of the multimedia elements. It will also provide a way for the article itself to be read into the future. The only items not working however, are the videos interspersed throughout the story.

In order to capture the site in its entirety with the videos intact, web recording seems like the best choice to preserve the overall experience on a user’s screen. The beta version of Webrecorder, an open source web archiving platform developed by Rhizome, is one option worth exploring. A user can type in a URL and either record the site immediately or preview how it will appear. The preview of Snow Fall reveals that only the individual photographs appear along with the article text. Slideshows and videos do not work and the motion graphics don’t render at all.

The biographical text appearing next to mug shots of the skiers does not display properly on Webrecorder.
The biographical text appearing next to mug shots of the skiers does not display properly on Webrecorder.

Additionally, there is some biographical text that appears next to mug shots of the skiers, which does not display properly. A simple solution to this issue would be to use the screen capture function of QuickTime to record how the Snow Fall site currently renders as a user moves through the story. This will record all the multimedia features, including the videos and will preserve the ability to see the videos full screen and how they are linked within the story.

Individual Multimedia Items

An additional possibility for preserving the multimedia items within the website would be to maintain each of them on their own, as final published individual elements. A web recording of the site itself wouldn’t necessarily do justice to each individual element and a user may want to focus in on a few specific multimedia items. It is a common practice for newspapers to save the photographs from every assignment and eventually maintain them in their own archive or donate them to an outside organization. However, the final destination for videos and motion graphics is less clear. At a minimum, it would be useful to preserve the final published versions of the video interviews and the motion graphics as MPEG files. This would allow a user to view and spend more time on select items.

One consideration regarding the multimedia elements however, is copyright. New York Times staff were responsible for the majority of the videos and motion graphics, but some of the photographs and videos were provided by the skiers, their families, or other entities. Unless these were permanently donated to the New York Times, the ownership and resulting ability to archive them is questionable. A potential future project to obtain rights for preserving them is a possibility.

Website Comments

When Snow Fall was released on December 20, 2012 it generated 1155 comments through December 28th. These comments posted directly to the project site will be important for capturing the variety of reactions from readers, but also to gauge the impact of the story around the United States and the world.

PDF of online comments and responses from the New York Times.
PDF of online comments and responses from the New York Times.

Additionally, there were comments selected by the New York Times, which John Branch and one of the skiers responded to. These responses will be especially important to preserve as they add additional context to the published story.

The simplest way of providing access to these will be to output the webpage containing all of the comments and the webpage with official responses as two individual PDFs. Maintaining them in the original website format is not necessary as the content itself is the most meaningful and will be searchable as a PDF.

Online Documentation

The online documentation surrounding the production of Snow Fall is fairly significant. Several media outlets conducted interviews with the staff involved in creating the story, a designer outlined how he produced one of the motion graphics on his personal website, and a blogger defined how most of the code behind the project worked. These outside sources documenting how Snow Fall was conceived and finally constructed are especially valuable because there is no known documentation originating from the New York Times. A designer who worked on Snow Fall explained to me in an email that these types of projects are not generally seen as a tool they are building, but rather unique approaches to specific stories. As a result, they might build off of successful previous ideas, but there is no “Snow Fall maker document” or procedure.

One method for archiving these outside resources would be to save the websites as PDF files. Another option is to create a document, which would point to these sources on the Internet Archive. The latter option seems to be the most useful as it would possibly maintain the links included in the articles, thereby providing additional context. One problem area is capturing the designer’s personal website, which contains videos hosted on Vimeo. These videos documenting the design behind one of the motion graphic elements does not play on the Internet Archive, so using QuickTime to screen capture the videos is a viable alternative.


Online journalism has radically changed over the last twenty years and continues to develop and grow. Preserving this work for the future seems to have finally gained some traction, including one effort at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. They have begun to explore this issue by conducting research, leading collaborative projects and generating communication between various stakeholders. The goal of preserving Snow Fall through these various methods is to provide the most useable and accessible elements to users, and it will hopefully serve as a valuable example of what is possible when archiving individual online stories.



2 Replies to “Snow Fall: A Preservation Plan”

  1. This is coming along really well. I feel like you’ve identified a really critical and relatively easy to act on issue. A huge part of what made this piece significant is how it looked and acted on the screen. As is often the case with this kind of boundary pushing work, those elements that make it the most significant are also the parts that are the hardest for automated web crawlers to capture. So I think your focus on screen recording the site makes a lot of sense. It may also be valuable to think about doing this on some mobile devices too, as from your earlier post it is clear that part of what was important about it from a design perspective was how it was designed to operate differently on different platforms. The comments and the coverage of the site are also great points and it sounds like you have solid ways to document those too.

    1. These are good ideas to record the experience on say an iPhone and an iPad. These are two things I’ll have to explore a bit to see if and how they can be recorded. There’s probably an app for that!

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