New York Times’ Snow Fall may not be the future of journalism. But it’s for sure the future of storytelling .

snow fall new york times storytellingEver since the New York Times launched its interactive web project, Snow Fall (a 5 part story of skiers and snowboarders trapped by an avalanche in Washington State’s Cascade mountain range), hypotheses of its effects on journalism and publishing have been ping-ponging between online news outlets. The debates over whether or not Snow Fall’s storytelling model (that recently hit 3.5 million page views) is the future of journalism, in fact deliver something more: lessons in content integration and the opportunity for brand-publisher collaboration.

If you haven’t read the feature yet, do. It’s something like magic — a visceral adventure story about a deadly avalanche that feels more like an interactive documentary that happens to have paragraphs than a newspaper story that happens to have interactives. Particularly ingenious is a section where a map traces doomed skiers’ paths down the mountain face as you scroll down the corresponding paragraphs. Further along, an animated video follows the contours of the avalanche sweeping down the same glade, with a clicking sound whose frequency indicates the changing speed of the barreling snow pack. Not just clever. Utterly ingenious.

‘Snow Fall’ it is an amazing story reminiscent of Jon Krakauer’s, now famous 1996 Outside Magazine piece, Into Thin Air. As a piece of journalism, John Branch’s Snow Fall is definitely an extraordinary piece of writing. It is a form of writing not often seen on the Web; long, well researched, impeccably edited, Pulitzer bound. Of course, these long intensive pieces are the stuff magazine journalism is based on. These publishers are just following in the footsteps of their predecessors.

– Gay Talese, Frank Sinatra Has a Cold. (Esquire, April 1966)
– Hunter S. Thompson, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved. (Scanlan’s Monthly, June 1970)
– Neal Stephenson, Mother Earth, Mother Board: Wiring the Planet. (Wired, December 1996)
– David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster. (Gourmet Magazine, August 2004)

Some, like Rebecca Greenfield for the Atlantic, were quick to dub Snow Fall the future of journalism. The piece, she wrote, “has a lot of people wondering — especially those inside the New York Times — if the mainstream media is about to forgo words and pictures for a whole lot more.” Jason Del Rey of Ad Age  was quick to agree. “Beyond a great narrative,” he said, “the article’s design and multimedia execution could help set a new bar for what visual storytelling can and should be on the web.”

But, alongside with the general excitement of its success went an undercurrent of the familiar publishing ennui – Snow Fall is just too expensive and time consuming to be a viable industry standard in the near future. For PandoDaily Sarah Lacy wrote: “The future of journalism is about speed, volume, rough and tumble and – like the tech world – ‘good enough’ iteration. Even blogs like ours that produce comparatively less, with editing and illustration and reporting still move at a rapid pace compared to the old media world. Every story we do could have been made better with a huge old media machine behind it. But typically that improvement would be marginal, and most readers wouldn’t notice or care. That’s why blogs work. Readers would rather have the information clearly and quickly, than read the fruits of seven editors arguing over a nut graph.”

Derek Thompson for the Atlantic, wrote: “The New York Times‘ miraculous mega-multi-media feature “Snow Fall” is a triumph of reporting, design, and creativity. It was immediately hailed by much of the Internet as the “future of journalism.” It’s not. And that’s okay. […] It’s exhaustively labor-intensive and rare for a reason. The project took six months for John Branch to report. The credits include a graphics and design team of 11, a photographer, three video people, and a researcher. There is no feasible way to make six-month sixteen-person multimedia projects the day-to-day future of journalism, nor is there a need to. Think about this morning. The top national news story is John Boehner’s failure to corral votes in the House for a plan to avoid the fiscal cliff. I’m sure there are clever ways to render that story interactively, but, really, why waste the time? […] t’s my suspicion that “Snow Fall” won’t change the architecture of journalism any more than movies changed the architecture of novels.”

As much as I would like to agree, he’s terribly wrong. It’s not about everyday business. It’s about the future of storytelling. There have been a few examples of this form to date, but none that has captured the imagination of people as much as is the case with “Snow Fall”. Maybe it should have been reworded as ‘the future of feature/storytelling journalism’. Yes, news stories don’t need this treatment, but it’s the first step that a traditionally printed publication has taken towards being more of a documentary maker. In that sense, this certainly is the future of journalism. Maybe news and features will become dichotomies, two completely different mediums in the coming years?

Another thing to consider: Unique features such as this demonstrate value and will also help convince people to subscribe or pay. If you know that you’ll get stuff like this every once in a while, you’ll be more likely to pay.

On the other hand, Derek is right about one thing: the piece was great, but too expensive, indeed. It took too much time and it faltered in the advertising department. Sound like an opening for collaboration? Absolutely. Whether or not the future of journalism has been forecast in the tealeaves of Snow Fall’s aftermath, from a marketing perspective the project portends a very real potential. As Jim Bankoff said, echoing the prevailing web marketing ethos: “In an age when many decry the death of print media, the world of digital publishing should be celebrating. Web consumers and advertisers crave a higher value journalism and storytelling, and it’s our challenge as publishers and creators to meet that demand.”

My only two criticisms:

1) the size of the team needed to do this (and the time it took to do) is ridiculous.  Six months and 11 people is a joke. “Snow Fall” was great – a ground-breaking use of multimedia – but seriously, a “graphics and design team of 11”? Wouldn’t one designer and one coder, working part time over 6 months, have been more than enough? A good designer and a killer front-end dev could nail this in a month, once the content was in hand.

2)  the ads. Advertising could have worked with Snow Fall if as much creative time and resources had been spent on that problem as was spent on the design and plumbing. The Times might have been able to come up with something a bit better than standard web ad blocks advertising a kids’ ski camp –– inserted in the most jarring way imaginable into an otherwise beautiful feature. What about a sponsorship for the feature?

Conclusion? Give “Snow Fall” the respect it deserves. It doesn’t need to bear the augury of “journalism of the future.” It bears the augury of “storytelling of the future”. It’s a rare and sensational gift for readers. It’s where subcompact publishing meets epic storytellinng. It’s – ultimately – a great lesson in design, collaboration, and storytelling. That’s quite enough.

Excerpts are take from the Atlantic, Medium, Newscred and Storify.

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4 thoughts on “New York Times’ Snow Fall may not be the future of journalism. But it’s for sure the future of storytelling .

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