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Summary:

The New York Times has been getting some well-deserved praise for its interactive “Snow Fall” multimedia feature — but as beautiful as the project is, it also raises almost as many questions as it answers about what the future of online journalism might look like.

Amid all the usual newspaper-industry storm clouds of paywalls and declining revenue, a small ray of sunshine appeared on Thursday, in the form of an eye-popping multimedia feature from the New York Times entitled “Snow Fall,” about an avalanche in the Tunnel Creek area of Washington state. It’s a visual feast, with embedded movie clips as background and an appealing design — and like many things the NYT does, it sparked both praise and criticism. In many ways, the feature was a little like the paper’s paywall: a feat of engineering that only the New York Times or another major media entity could succeed at, and also a double-edged sword that leaves behind almost as many questions as it does as answers.

Within hours of the feature going live, a piece at The Atlantic argued that Snow Fall was “the future of journalism,” because of its breathtaking design and marriage of text, video and images (and also because it works remarkably well on mobile phones and tablets as well as the web, which is rare with such multimedia efforts). Atlantic senior editor Derek Thompson, however, soon responded by arguing that the feature isn’t the future of journalism, but just a great experiment. As he put it: “There is no feasible way to make six-month sixteen-person multimedia projects the day-to-day future of journalism.”

That was one of the more common criticisms about the NYT piece: namely, that devoting six months or more to a project that involves 16 highly-paid professionals isn’t really something that many media outlets can emulate, even on a much smaller level. Sarah Lacy of Pando Daily described it as the Times “taking off the gloves” and trying to prove that big, expensive newsrooms still matter — in other words, a feat of strength. But does that help the vast majority of other newspapers? Not really (although some argued that we should just be happy that such features exist, instead of trying to see them all as the future of journalism).

Snow Fall screenshot1

The authors of the recent Columbia University report on the future of journalism made a similar point: namely, that the New York Times has done a number of things (including a paywall) that don’t really have any bearing on the woes of the rest of the industry, because it has resources (and a brand) that others can’t match. One benefit of exercises like Snow Fall, however — or of similar multimedia experiments like ESPN’s Dock Ellis feature and a recent PBS online report that made good use of interactivity — is that they might at least inspire other outlets to experiment more.

Snow Fall is also a great microcosm of the issues confronting the journalism business for another reason: it probably cost a substantial amount of money to produce, and yet there is no clear path towards recouping that investment. The series is being made available as an e-book through a partnership with Byliner, and some will undoubtedly buy it even though they could read it for free online, but $2.99 per copy isn’t going to go very far. And what about advertising? At first the web version had none, but now it does, and it is terrible — ugly, not very useful, poorly integrated.

Could advertising 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? It’s impossible to know. But 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? If nothing else, it helps to reinforce the point that producing appealing and useful content isn’t the biggest problem the industry has right now.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user jphilipg

  1. MichelleRafter Friday, December 21, 2012

    ” it probably cost a substantial amount of money to produce, and yet there is no clear path towards recouping that investment.” – Nothing new here. That sentence could describe the kinds of serious projects news organization have always undertaken – in print or online – including investigative series and long-form profiles that require a reporter and/or photographer to hang out with a subject for weeks or months at a time.

    Michelle Rafter

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    1. Thanks, Michelle — that’s a good point, and many of those types of things often seem driven by a desire to enhance the overall brand of a newspaper or publication. But the pressure to monetize that content is more overwhelming now than it has ever been.

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  2. Barry Graubart Friday, December 21, 2012

    My reaction to Snowfall was a bit different. The story itself was so compelling that it didn’t NEED all of the cool features. Three paragraphs in, I felt like I was in the midst of reading a Jon Krakauer or Sebastian Junger book. I didn’t need the cool effects to get engaged. In fact, I read the article first, then went back to play with the video and other features.

    That said, I did feel that it was the most tablet-like experience I’d seen on the web and that it was good that the Times did it, even if it’s not something easily replicable.

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    1. I actually did something very similar, Barry — although I confess I coudn’t figure out how to read it at first until I figured out that you had to scroll down :-)

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  3. Maybe they launched it without advertising as a clean start show piece, then monetization gets folded into later pieces.

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  4. “Snow Fall” is beautiful. But the ads are the visual equivalent of ads on TV that are five times as loud as the rest of the program.

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  5. I shared “Snow Fall” with my students (1st and 2nd year at U of Toronto). They
    were powerfully impressed by both the story telling and the visuals. They weren’t
    bothered by the small banner ads (just part of their media landscape). And they
    weren’t put off by the length. I think the Times is on to something here.

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  6. Seems like a strange argument. Did the NYT claim that this is the future of journalism? If not, why blaming it for putting “too much” effort in one story? I commend any media outlet nowadays that is willing and able to put out prestige stories that never will make their money back. Otherwise there would not be much multimedia and no investigative journalism. So I’d say bravo NTY for putting out stories that show what is possible and building up your brand at the same time. Everything else looks like critizism from envious competition.

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  7. Funny, like Barry, I read the article itself without the compelling graphics. I actually read a good chunk of it first on my BB and it felt like a damn fine article. Given I read most of the NYT on a cache-clearing BB, I probably would never have known about the graphics/multimedia if it weren’t for twitter. How’s that for the future of news?

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  8. The Philadelphia Inquirer did similar multimedia storytelling when it introduced the Blackhawk Down series in 1997 (which became the book and movie). http://inquirer.philly.com/packages/somalia/nov16/default16.asp. I wrote about the use of the Web for literary journalism in Newspaper Research Journal with BHD as the case study, published in 2004. http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/articles/15386191/literary-journalism-techniques-create-compelling-blackhawk-down-web-site. The tools are better, but this potential has existed for more than 15 years. Great projects like this remind us what can be achieved.

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  9. My first moment of ‘a-ha’ was when I realized I could hear the wind blowing at the beginning of the story. From there, it was so well done that I took it to work and showed it to my marketing team. I said, “There’s the future and the NY Times just showed it to us.”

    I also agree with Barry that the story was like a Krakauer novel and I also read first, played afterward. On the first pass, the banner ads didn’t cross my mind, so I don’ think they were so jarring.

    What this piece did for me was to show me that we can give people content, wrapped in great artwork, and even include sound as a way to tell a remarkable story. Its the story that grabs people, but just like talking around a campfire, it can be the pauses and the crackle of logs burning that is as much a part as the words.

    Thanks for writing about this. It felt like a milestone as I read it.

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  10. Jesus S. Matubis Jr Sunday, December 23, 2012

    As a former journalist, I find New York Time’s Snowfall project highly commendable and worthwhile because it makes news/information dissemination interesting and captivating through the effective use of multi-media. About the comment that it seems counterproductive to be producing features like Snowfall because it involves a big staff and a long period of time, shouldn’t major news organizations like New York Times, precisely because it has the resources, attempt projects like these so that it can help push the envelope, so to speak? Having been involved in television news, I find Snowfall visually arresting and effective, and I really don’t mind it having commercials. Congratulations to the New York Times.

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