‘Now Reading’ is a collection and sharing of online stories and is meant for minimal consumption by the few readers of this blog. Topics will include books, food, matters of culture, photography, media and technology … there are no rules. Have a story to add? Share it in the comments.
There are two incredible things about John Branch’s multimedia feature in the New York Times, ‘Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.’ First, the story itself.
In February, a group of skiing experts – the group consisted of a professional skier, people who work in the skiing industry and people who run ski resorts, so they quite literally were “experts” – decided to ski Tunnel Creek. Cowboy Mountain – part of the Cascade Range in Washington – has a front and back side. The front is home to Stevens Pass, where there is a resort and people looking for a winter getaway. The back is Tunnel Creek, where there is nothing but trees and soft powder and daring souls whizzing down the slope. There are “continue at your own risk” signs, as the Creek is unmonitored and, while not private land, technically out of the resort’s boundaries.
I suppose there’s a “safe” way to ski Tunnel Creek – they say stay left at all costs and don’t plunge too far straight down, otherwise you will find yourself in a “terrain trap,” essentially a valley that is littered with rocks and trees and acts as a landing strip for avalanches. The slightest shift in snowpack can trigger one, and if you’re caught in the terrain trap, well, odds of survival are not good. Out of the group Branch chronicles in his story, some chose the vertical route. What unfolded was pure terror. It’s an unbelievable story that Branch, an ace reporter and writer, tells brilliantly. I won’t spoil it.
The second incredible thing is the presentation of the story and what the Times staff did with it. If you’re curious what multimedia storytelling looks like at its best, this is it: Compelling story, superb writing, beautiful graphics, stunning design, 3-D interactive features that are simple to understand and awesome to look at, video interviews embedded into the piece, audio (in this case 9-1-1 dispatches), slideshows that add depth to the characters and enrich your personal connection with this piece. It’s hard to even compare this piece to other written works, because we experience ‘Snow Fall’ through every medium possible. Words, images, sounds interactive features. We get it all. The story is long, but even if you don’t read it all, you should certainly skim through just to see the design and enjoy the multimedia benefits. We shouldn’t be stunned at what the New York Times can produce with a world-class writer and world-class editors and designers, but somehow I am with this.
The Atlantic took a crack at wondering if ‘Snow Fall’ is the future of online journalism, and the magazine spoke with a few folks from the Times involved in the project. There are many questions without perfect answers, of course, and there is a lot of room for innovation. Is this the future? Can it get better? Who knows? We always seem to, in time, answer such things with other, MORE incredible products. Anyway, two thoughts here:
The Atlantic grazed over a very important detail in its review, which is the graphics and interactive features actually added to the reading experience. Too often, cool-looking graphics become clunky on the page with sub-optimal design, and although they still add some element of “experience,” they detract from the work overall. They become a distraction, they are frustrating, they are barriers for reading on. ‘Snow Fall’ got that piece of this just right. As a reader, you get to a graphic and wanted to engage it, because, in a simple manner, it helps you understand and visualize events that are unfolding in the text, and then the graphic seamlessly pushes you back out on the other side, back into the text. You never feel like you really left the story. The text and graphics worked in harmony (which is all on the design folks and the main reason why you left this piece with the word “beautiful” in mind).
Secondly, this was the product of a newspaper. Yes, of course the New York Times is so much more than just a “newspaper,” and it’s hard to even compare the company with other papers. The Times simply has resources – financial and human – that all others do not. They are able to invest in work of this nature. But we should still let fact that a newspaper produced this on its digital arm sink in. Most (all?) newspapers have websites now, and therefore they have a space prime for experimenting with ambitious storytelling. No, ‘Snow Fall’ isn’t the standard. You look read that piece and immediately think, you can’t compete with THAT. The number of competing papers that possess the resources to produce something like that is probably a single digit.
But that doesn’t mean papers can’t experiment with high-quality video and embedding that in online stories. That doesn’t mean papers can’t cut audio clips and use those online when they enhance a story (e.g. A brilliantly writer can describe an emergency call, and probably capture the emotion and weight of the moment. But would that be better than actually listening to it?). That doesn’t mean papers can’t strive to produce beautiful photography.
I don’t pretend to know the solution for ailing newspapers. Maybe there just isn’t one. But it at least seems like the beginning of a winning strategy would include providing spectacular digital content that can overcome the limitations of paper and ink and be teased with a news story in the print product. I don’t really believe people aren’t willing to pay for content or news. People pay for excellence, whether that’s in digital media or retail or anything else.
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