Quick note: “Snow Fall”

The New York Times has been pushing “Snow Fall,” a multimedia article about the February 2012 avalanche in the Cascade Mountains.  It’s a six part story, much like one of the NYT Magazine‘s feature articles, but supplemented with video interviews, interactive maps, and other material designed to bring the story to life.  It takes some time to get through, but is, I think, worth getting into, because it seems like one direction that newspapers might take in this “digital age” of reduced print circulation.

That being said, I’m not convinced that the story really needed all of the bells and whistles.  The story itself – of 16 professional or semi-professional skiers caught in an avalanche – is compelling enough on its own.  Interviews with survivors are heart-wrenching, but for me the most difficult part of the piece was the narrative reconstruction of the victims’ loved ones’ reactions.  Many people are familiar with print analogues to stories like these – the Magazine’s story last week about Barney’s, for example – which could be augmented with digital material, and I suppose there’s an argument that says that the more information included, in as many different mediums as possible, the better.  And some parts of “Snowfall” worked really well.  As you read each part, the text scrolls over background images – in some cases of snow, in others of trees destroyed by the avalanche, and, perhaps most effectively, over maps which highlight the position of the skier being discussed at the moment.  But in other places, the information feels superfluous, or not fully integrated – digital content for the sake of novelty, rather than for the sake of telling a better story.

I hope to see more of this kind of thing from the Times, because I think that it charts some rich terrain for the future of journalism (and I’d frankly love to play around with something like this for history writing).  I also have to wonder whether some kinds of stories are suited to this treatment more than others.  Because I’m a disaster studies nerd, I did find myself thinking that disasters are particularly well-suited to these kinds of pieces (I was actually reminded a couple of times of the “Murder on Beacon Hill” documentary and app – which, if you live in or near Boston, is really worth checking out).  Disasters (or in the case of the Beacon Hill piece, murders) often feature a discrete cast of characters, a series of events easily fit into narrative form, and take place in a limited enough space to make things like maps useful.  I’d really love to see the “Snowfall” treatment applied to a more data-driven story though, because I think a lot of great work has been done recently with visual and interactive representations of information that could really enhance readers’/viewers’ experience of a story.

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