Monday, December 31, 2012

New York Times Snow Fall interactive feature

"Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek" was an amazing feature from the New York Times that stood out on multiple levels. The piece was written by John Branch and in 18,000+ words details the avalanche that claimed the lives of three expert skiers on an out-of-bounds run at Stevens Pass ski area outside Seattle.

Previously written on this tragedy was the piece "Tunnel Vision" by Megan Michelson for Outside Magazine. The writing by Michelson was compelling and I previously linked to it in a post on writers and their writing as she was part of the group skiing that day. 

It's in no way a knock on the Michelson piece, but Branch definitely expands on the story as "Snow Fall" features the following postscript: "The reporting for this article on the Feb. 19 avalanche at Tunnel Creek was done over six months. It involved interviews with every survivor, the families of the deceased, first responders at Tunnel Creek, officials at Stevens Pass and snow-science experts. It also included the examination of reports by the police, the medical examiner and the Stevens Pass Ski Patrol, as well as 40 calls to 911 made in the aftermath of the avalanche. "

This level of reporting done by Branch was reminiscent of what must have gone into his three-part series "Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer" on Derek Boogaard for the Times a year ago. Continuing with this idea of reminiscent parallels, I linked to the Boogard story with it's in-depth level of journalism in the same way that I did the Michelson piece, under the subject of writers and writing.

Not to simply use this post as a vehicle to link to past blog posts done here, but the recent "Snow Fall" story  falls into this same category of being interesting not just as a piece of excellent writing, but in relation to the field of journalism and writing. Along with the aforementioned level of reporting done by Branch, the piece differs from most in that the Times published it as an interactive feature that incorporates extremely well-done graphics, images and video along with the text.

About the concept and construction of the Times feature (incorporating both Branch's text and everything beyond) were a few different pieces from The Atlantic. On December 20th, Rebecca Greenfield wrote "What the New York Times's 'Snow Fall' Means to Online Journalism's Future" which included an interview with two editors from the Times Graphics and Digital departments. Then a day later, Atlantic editor Derek Thompson did "'Snow Fall' Isn't the Future of Journalism" about how as incredible as the feature is, it's likely not going to become a norm in journalism simply because of how much work it required. Finally, Greenfield a week later added "So What if Tons of People Read That 'Snow Fall' Story on the Times Website?" that included mention of how the feature got as many page views for the Times that the entire Outside Magazine site gets in a month.

It was interesting reading these pieces from The Atlantic and to probably generalize a bit on the message conveyed, they echoed what I thought while reading "Snow Fall"; it's a thoroughly reported and well written feature that included lots of additional work outside of writing, but it doesn't seem sustainable for publications to provide this on a regular basis. While it's true that the Times and Byliner collaborated to make "Snow Fall" available for purchase as an e-book, the note "A version of this article, which includes an epilogue, is available as an e-book" doesn't seem as it if would draw in many readers who have just enjoyed the 18,000+ works and numerous interactive features for free on the Times site.

That said, while the field of journalism and how writing should be delivered (and paid) still very much in flux, it's heartening to see the attempt made to figure it out and a great feature (including the writing by Branch and everything else that went into it) provided in the process.