If you haven’t seen The New York Times’ amazing online package from Dec. 20 titled “Snow Fall,” you should.
The article is about a devastating avalanche in February 2012 at the Tunnel Creek section of Stevens Pass in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. It’s written by John Branch, but the project is the result of a team of 16 staffers who worked together over six months.
The avalanche was triggered by a group of 16 famous expert skiers and snowboarders; three were killed. The story attracted lots of media attention at the time, but Branch brought his considerable storytelling talent to the assignment, and the Times gave it the kind of treatment — and space — that only The New York Times could afford.
“Snow Fall” ran as its own special section in print with lots of photos and infographics — in itself an unprecedented presentation for something that wasn’t, say, 9/11.
But the online version was jaw-dropping in its scope. It brought together all the tools, elements and platforms now available for digital storytelling, and set an awfully high bar for any online media outlet to meet.
When the first page of the project fills in, you don’t see the typical navigation at the top of the page, or ads or other content linked at the side. You see a haunting animated image of a snowy mountaintop, with just a small NYT flag at the upper left, and the headline, subhed and byline overlaid on top of the image. Text begins at the bottom of the screen, and as you scroll down, the image stays put as text moves up and covers it.
Branch’s writing grabs you immediately with the urgency of a cinematic suspense thriller.
As you scroll down, you’re presented multimedia elements that add both emotional depth and details to the narrative: video interviews with survivors, a moving aerial view of the Cascades that zooms in on the mountain where the avalanche happened, old photos from a 1910 avalanche, and a video that explains the “Allure of the Backcountry” for hardcore skiers.
Farther down are slideshows of the skiers and ‘boarders that help humanize the tragedy, and a slideshow of night skiing shot the night before the avalanche. The first section ends with an animated weather map that shows the path of the storm that brought 32 inches of snow to the mountain in three days.
Then you can click on to five more sections that are equally long, and equally compelling. “Snow Fall” is as cutting edge as you can get today, and there lies the challenge.
The New York Times can produce such a project. OK, so the 16 staffers didn’t work full-time on just this package for six months. But who can even afford to put one reporter on a long-form story for six months, and then publish it as a special section in print and a multimedia showcase online? (It’s also available as an e-book.) How many newsrooms can give a reporter 17,000 words to tell a story, and then add on multiple videos and slideshows, amazing interactives and animated graphics? (One shows the size and speed of the avalanche as it moved down the mountainside.)
This was new and groundbreaking even for the Times. Branch admits that though he had done some larger projects that included multimedia before, he couldn’t predict the final result.
“My imagination did not envision what the presentation turned out to be,” he said in an email.
It’s an outlier, even for the Times. So it sets the standard, but every newsroom, no matter the size of staff or budget, should at the least aspire to the standard set by “Snow Fall.” It’s a cliché to say “baby steps,” but for many journalists today, baby steps are indeed what we have to take before we can leap to these heights.
1) Don’t just rely on text to tell a story.
2) Insert a video. Don’t shoot video just because “you can,” but if video will help tell the story, don’t be scared to shoot something on your phone, upload it to YouTube and embed it into your article online.
3) Use social media and tools such as Storify to create a timeline of a news event by curating dispatches culled from real-time updates. You’ll be surprised at how compelling they can be.
Reporters like Branch aren’t expected to shoot their own video; he says he tried and it sucked, so he keeps to writing. But if you appreciate digital media’s potential, you’ll know to embrace it when an opportunity presents itself. Who knows, maybe you’ll have the next “Snow Fall” and set the bar even higher.
“To me, as a writer, it’s still about the words,” Branch said. “I’m not conjuring stories that I see as a fiesta of multimedia possibilities, but that I see as a good, informative, educational and fresh tale. But I’d be foolish not to consider how that story could be told and presented better, thanks to the wizardry of my colleagues.”