As I approached finishing my MLS degree (only two required courses to take this summer!), I wanted to choose my last elective wisely. Though my background is in photography, I had not taken a single course directly related to art or visual material, so Introduction to Digital Arts Curation sounded like a good course to end on.
First, I thought I was clear on what “digital arts” meant. This was probably the first lesson learned in the class – just how wide this net could be cast. Class readings and discussions on things like glitch art, webcomics and crowdsourced games like Twitch Plays Pokémon were unfamiliar territory for me. Classmates’ posts on Twitterbots and YouTube projects introduced other work to me, and even my final project on the multimedia online journalism piece Snow Fall was not something I would have initially thought of working on as part of the class.
Besides the variety of artworks we discussed, all the possible ways of thinking about preservation of a work were eye opening. Whether it was looking at the individual bits and bytes that make up a digital work, how it functions on different platforms, or the cultural and historical context surrounding the work – there’s no one right way of preserving digital materials. Viewing preservation through these different frameworks really opened up the possibilities for working through our final projects.
The initial research for my project on Snow Fall laid the groundwork for the historical and cultural context, but also highlighted some of the forensic aspects of the website. Getting my thoughts down on paper (actually an online post) while writing the statement of significance helped to shape what eventually became some of the final pieces of the Archival Information Package. The act of describing the various features to the project and continuing to build on it before actually collecting all the pieces was an extremely useful exercise – and a valuable activity in relation to appraisal.
Another issue that came up repeatedly over the semester was the importance of collaboration. Involving stakeholders, whether that means archivists, conservators, the artist, technical specialists, fellow classmates and users, is critical in preserving digital works. We must gather all viewpoints to determine the most important aspects to save, as well as use the collaboration to discover new possibilities in preservation. This idea was reiterated during the film screening and discussion of Andy van Dam’s project on hypertext at Brown University. The NEH-funded work was only possible through cooperative work between computer scientists and humanities scholars, which was mutually beneficial.
Tying in lessons from other classes with this one, we were able to focus our efforts on one particular project to preserve. My selection was The New York Times’ online story, Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, which is summarized on this poster. Though this class was specific to digital arts, the theories and frameworks through which we viewed the artworks could really be applied to any type of work or collection.
Despite the focus on a single project for the semester, I think everyone also learned lessons about making some compromises. There is never enough time to do everything an archivist would like to do – perhaps we would have liked to do more background research, or there were technical difficulties, licensing issues, or the input from artists wasn’t possible. So, we make decisions and compromise. I attended the recent MARAC conference in Pittsburgh and Francine Snyder, the Director of Archives and Scholarship at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, described valuable advice she received from a mentor – in the future, there will always be a person looking at your work from the past, asking “ Who was the jackass that did this?” So, you accept this and do the best you can do – attempt to find a scalable solution, and work with what you have.
Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, a multimedia story by The New York Times, made a significant impact on a variety of stakeholders when it was released in December 2012. It was a prime example of long-form journalism told through an immersive multimedia experience. The story was a first of its kind and set a precedent for what online journalism could and should be.kahovka-service.ru
For its innovation alone, Snow Fall merits preservation. However, it also serves as an example of the issues facing the journalism community today to archive the work they produce on a daily basis. A newspaper is no longer only generating physical materials like photographs and papers anymore, but videos, motion graphics, visualizations and websites. In the case of Snow Fall, there is also a difference between what multimedia items are available for viewing and how they are rendered depending on the device a user may have.
In an attempt to capture the various aspects of Snow Fall, as well as the impact it made on various communities, the archival information package (AIP) contains a variety of files. The AIP contains five folders and a Readme PDF file, which explains the contents of each folder. The folders are organized and named according to the subject and/or the type of file they contain.
The first folder, labeled “Comments,” contains two PDF files of every comment and reply left on the Snow Fall website from the day it was released, December 20, 2012, until eight days later when the comments were closed. There are a total of 1155 comments, arranged chronologically by date from newest to oldest. There is also an edited version of the comments, in which The New York Times selected specific comments to reply to. These are a smaller subsection of the overall comments, which John Branch, the author of the story, and Elyse Saugstad, one of the skiers, responded to. There is also a comment that was left by one of the skier’s wives included in this group.
Maintaining the comments was important in order to preserve the variety of reactions from the readers. However, they also demonstrate the impact the story made around the world by indicating where the reader was located. The handpicked selections that John Branch and Elyse Saugstad responded to serve to provide a bit more context to the story, and the separate file containing these replies allow for quicker access. Turning the website comments into PDFs maintains their format and provides a way for future searching.
Outside resources that documented how the website was created and the media coverage surrounding the release of Snow Fall became extremely important to preserve as a graphic designer working on the project indicated that there was no “Snowfall maker document.” Anything that might provide a bit of contextual information to the story itself gives an overview of where online journalism stood at this point in time, as well as the technology used in building it. The information in this folder supplies more of a historical view.
The files in this folder consist of two MP4 videos that show the layering of data used to create the avalanche simulation. There is also a PDF file containing links to URLs on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. The URLs point to the story itself, media coverage, interviews with New York Times staff members involved with creating Snow Fall, and even a blog post that defines the code behind the website. The last document included in the folder is a PDF file of The New York Times Innovation Report from May 24, 2014, which was an in-house report looking at the state of online journalism and audience engagement at the newspaper.
Since newspapers have a much more established process for archiving digital photographs, this aspect to the online story became less important. However, the process for preserving videos and motion graphics is less clear, so saving at least the final products appearing in Snow Fall was critical.
There is one standalone MP4 file in this folder and three folders containing videos of the graphics, interviews, and trip footage. The standalone file called “AvalancheAtTunnelCreek_Documentary” is an almost 11-minute long film that had been included at the very end of the story. A still image from the documentary still appears at the end of the story, but the video file itself is no longer there. The video was located and exported from YouTube.
The graphics folder contains videos of the motion graphics found in the story, the interviews folder contains footage shot by New York Times staff of the skiers and their family members, and the trip footage folder contains video shot by two of the skiers while on the trip. These are all MP4 videos saved from the website. Obviously, maintaining the unedited footage from the in-house staff is important, but only access to final edited versions is available for this project.
Web Recording and iPhone4_Screenshots
The multimedia elements and the overall design of the Snow Fall website was a significant aspect to the story. The programmers and designers made clear that the design for modern browsers on a desktop or laptop computer was the starting point and it was then altered to improve the experience on various mobile devices. Therefore, demonstrating how the full website appeared on a laptop compared to say, an iPhone and iPad, was valuable to preserve.
QuickTime provides a way to screen record your Mac, as well as the screen of your iPhone and iPad back to the Mac. Using this software allows someone to view how the website would render on any of these devices. Using QuickTime, I recorded how the website appeared on my MacBook, by creating individual videos from each chapter of the story. This captured all of the multimedia and how each item was integrated into the story. The iPad videos were captured in the same way by dividing out each chapter. However, it is evident that there are no photo slide shows and the motion graphics, which automatically play on the full website, need to be manually started through video playback controls. Many of the leading images which begin each chapter are looping videos on the full website, but these become still images on the iPad version. Additionally, there were some technical difficulties with recording the videos from the iPad to the MacBook. There is a slight delay between recording the video from the iPad to the MacBook and it causes the audio to get out of sync with the video. I need to explore this error a bit more or look into alternative software where this would not be a problem.
Creating a screen recording of my iPhone 4 to my MacBook became problematic as well because I can no longer upgrade to more current software. My iPhone is currently running on iOS 6.1.3, which was too old for any of the software applications I looked at. As a workaround I created screenshots of various elements from different chapters of the story. In the iPhone version, the photographs and slide shows integrated into the text are not included. Opening images to some of the chapters that are looping videos on a desktop computer, appear as still images on the iPhone. Motion graphics that automatically play on a desktop computer are embedded as videos with playback controls.
Taking the time to evaluate what are the most important aspects to preserve in one specific example of online journalism has been a valuable experience. The work in constructing the AIP for Snow Fall allowed me to consider what was important to the story beyond just the standard text and photographs. The amount and variety of work being produced at news organizations is only growing and much of it has already been lost. It is critical that these organizations take on some initial responsibility to save this multimedia work or it will entirely disappear.
Snow 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
According to Lev Manovich “to understand media today we need to understand media software – its genealogy (where it comes from), its anatomy (interfaces and operations), and its practical and theoretical effects.” While Manovich dives into the detail of Photoshop to explain his theory, Patrick Davison uses the same approach to examine MS Paint.
Manovich and Davison explain the background of both Photoshop and MS Paint, though from slightly angles. The authors describe how both applications have an attachment to the traditional, analog form of making art based on the tools they provide. Photoshop and MS Paint contain pencil and paintbrush tools – items that anybody would inherently understand.
The authors diverge a bit in how they describe the history and development of both applications. Manovich looks more at the history of traditional media and computer programming in general. Using the example of layers in Photoshop, Manovich explains how the idea of multiple tracks, channels and layers always existed in traditional forms of film, audio recording, and animation. He explains further how two computer scientists working on special effects for Star Trek II wrote a paper comparing the layering technique used for a digital composite in the movie to putting together separate code modules in a computer program. Davison examines the economic and political factors at Microsoft, which effected the development of MS Paint. He also considers how the growth of the Internet affected the use of the software during this time period.
Anatomy (Interfaces and Operations)
Davison goes into detail describing the difference between a raster bitmap image of a MS Paint file and a vector based file for a program like Illustrator. The bitmapped MS Paint file contained jagged edges due to the fact it was being drawn with a mouse and anti-aliasing was not available to smooth out the edges. The rough artwork of MS Paint reinforced the idea that painting programs were for the general public, while drawing programs that produced more accurate images were meant for professionals.
Throughout Inside Photoshop Manovich describes the menus and tools available to a user – there are in fact thousands of commands available. One area of commands he explores in depth however, are the filters. Many of these are based on traditional forms of producing art, but others are often based off ideas from the physical world, like wind and waves. One conclusion he reaches is that the filters based on traditional art allow a user much more control whereas those based on the physical world are more automated and generated through algorithms.
Practical and Theoretical Effects
Both Manovich and Davison express the idea that Photoshop and MS Paint certainly draw from traditional media, but that they are also completely different. Manovich writes “ . . . all media techniques and tools available in software applications are ‘new media’- regardless of whether a particular technique or program refers to previous media, physical phenomena, or a common task that existed before it was turned into software, or not.” Despite Microsoft generally ignoring MS Paint, the software still holds importance and Davison theorizes that the timing of the Internet with the marketing of MS Paint to the general public lead to its popularity online. Davison explains how “analyzing MS Paint’s ‘authentic digital aesthetics’ is valuable because it enables a consideration of digital media as an autonomous sphere of production and value.” The art director and illustrator John Huang seems to be in agreement with Davison’s assessment of digital media when he argues that using the software is not a cop out and is just as valid as traditional means of producing art.
Personally, I am struck by how prevalent software like Photoshop and other media applications are, but then you tack on all the social media sites like Facebook and Instagram, and you start to realize the sheer number of images out there in the world. Good’s blog post and Marshall’s article explore these topics, which seem to be the more practical effects of media software that Manovich and Davison introduce.
Using photography as an example, an analog-based art, which has only been around since the 1820s (the Harry Ransom Center actually holds what is considered to be the first photograph by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce) and you consider how the digitization of the medium has impacted culture today – it is a pretty impressive amount of change in what I would consider a short period of time.
Everyone has a digital camera today and everybody’s images are passing through applications like Photoshop, or the filters on Hipstamatic (do people still use this?) and Instagram, in order to post them to a whole host of social media sites or personal websites. Marshall examines the idea of versions, or rather, versions, variations, and derived forms. Considering all these factors, as an archivist, makes your head hurt right? Good points out how more images are on Facebook, Flickr and Instagram than are in the Library of Congress, so what do we do about all these images being produced? Can they be preserved? How? Or would we even want to preserve it all and how would you go about selecting what you wanted? And how do you even begin to approach copyright and privacy concerns?
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 Techcrunchreported 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.