Notes on the NYT’s “Snow Fall”

The New York Times released a multimedia feature last December that, in one swift stroke, completely redefined what writing for the web could mean. The digital edition of the Times generally looks fairly similar to the print edition. The Internet allows content to be continuously updated (breaking news and updates), provides space for columnists and others to further develop their opinions (blogs), and allows readers to more directly respond to a given article (comments). But none of that is truly revolutionary. Print newspapers  also issue updates and corrections, publish editorials, and print letters to the editor. They just have to wait twenty-four hours between editions and they have to be more selective about what gets published due to the restraints of paper. Despite these differences, both editions of the paper publish articles that emphasize text and include pictures for illustration. Online articles just have more pictures and more color pictures (and the occasional video).

“Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek” doesn’t just do more things. It does new things. And the deep integration of text and digital media it presents is stunning even to people long accustomed to getting their news online.

Relationality

When you open the link to “Snow Fall” (and you really should), you’ll find that wind-blown snow occupies your entire screen. Not a flat, dead picture of snow, a moving picture of snow that feels alive and right even though you’ve never quite seen anything like it. And then the beginning of the article floats up and invites you to begin reading. The whole experience is dynamic; mountains spin in quasi-3d, video snippets and phone conversations hover next to the text, and skiers slide down the mountain.  These digital elements change as you read the article. Videos become brighter as you scroll down. The screen darkens in transition points. You become part of the story as it unfolds, part of the avalanche as it sweeps down the mountain. We aren’t yet used to this kind of dynamism in narrative.

Aesthetic

The pages in this feature have a bleak near-colorlessness that corresponds to the tragedy they describe. There is an abundance of white space and brief bursts of color photography occasionally brighten the pages, like boldly-appareled skiers might brighten a harsh landscape.

Rhetoric

“Snow Fall” is a story of human desires and the catastrophes that sometime result from following those desires without caution. We are presented with many photographs of the actors in this drama and this helps emphasize that the people involved are real individuals, not nameless characters.

Affect

The article also includes video of backcountry skiing and audio recordings of 911 calls to allow readers to experience a little of the joys and fears involved.

It took the creators of “Snow Fall” six months to put the piece together. Clearly, it’s not economically feasible to craft every article in this way, (as detailed here). But the piece gives us an ideas of the heights we can reach by integrating digital media and more traditional forms of reporting.

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