Is the New York Times’ “Snow Fall” the best multimedia feature ever?


We’ve been having a bit of a debate here at MSU over the New York Times’ “Snow Fall,” the paper’s latest multimedia extravaganza.
Read it here:

Several folks on the MSU faculty have noted that some 20 people spent six months on the project, which makes it cost-prohibitive for “normal” news organizations. Here’s my take:

The correct questions, I would posit, are whether this works — is it the most compelling way to tell the story. And then, can it be done cost-effectively, i.e., not NYTimes-style.

I think a lot of it works, though I think it needs one more hard edit. The text is way too long. The writer tries to tell you about at least 13 different people and that is just too many to keep straight. He’d be better off sticking to the three victims and the one survivor, and the key rescuers. And yeah, a faculty member makes a great point — how sympathetic are these carefree folks who did something stupid?

I think there are too many irrelevant photos that can be distracting (I counted over 75 — did you notice that when you click on one of the highlighted names in the text, you get a photo gallery?). I don’t think we need the weather map showing the storm. I think the audio clips need to be better identified as 911 calls and not just by the name of the person making the call. I’d put the final long documentary video clip at the outset, not at the bottom, and I’d do a better job of highlighting the clip about the joys and risks of this type of skiing.

But overall, I think it is really effective. I became engrossed in the story.

I should point out that the NYTimes folks seem to be positioning this as an eBook and not just a multimedia print story, i.e., this might be something sold separately for $.99 say, and not just part of the paper. Could they do a cutdown version for the paper, and then say, to read the whole thing, pay $.99? Would they get 100,000 readers?

As to doing it cost-effectively… Certainly the writer could have done 80% of the same piece in much less time, without interviewing, as he boasts, everyone who was on the mountain and all of the rescuers. The video is not really that difficult. Some of it was provided by the skiers from their helmet cameras. The rest could have been shot with a mid-level DSLR camera in the $900 range (though I’m sure the Times used something approximating $3,000). Certainly all of the interviews require only a tripod and a little attention to microphone placement and backlighting.

Those interactive graphics — the one showing the Cascades in 3D and the other one illustrating the science of avalanches  — are much harder. That’s a specialized skill for a graphics department because you need to be able to do illustration. But I’m not sure how long it will be before Google Maps makes it easy to do the Cascades map overlays.

I worked at and the AP doing some much less sophisticated versions of this sort of thing and the devil is in the details in terms of keeping the cost down. I concede, not many good magazine writers could also shoot the video and conceive the overall piece, but could SOME folks learn to do it? And if they can produce and sell the piece themselves in an eBook, can they make a living? I’m intrigued by that, though not convinced.

PS – Here’s what I sent my students yesterday…

Subject: Is this the greatest Web feature story ever?

It’s at least a great piece to spark discussion about the best way to tell a big feature story on the Web.

It’s maybe 10,000 words, way too long, for me. But it’s also a 10-minute video, with good interviews, plus video from some of the skiers’ cameras from the scene of the avalanche. There are 75 photos scattered all over the place, plus three 911 calls and 5-6 other short videos. There are several large animated graphics to show the route of the avalanche (it unfolds in real time), the science behind why it happened, and the terrain of the Cascades.

They cleared out all of the ads and navigation junk that normally clutters a web page.

And they again used that “Video loop as a still photo” trick — the one of the blowing snow that starts the piece and appears again in a couple of other places. Call it a video still? I like the embedded mini-videos – be sure to click to play them fullscreen.

Some of the stuff is subtle — on the third page, the one entitled “The Descent Begins”, notice how as the text on the left scrolls, certain skiers’ names are highlighted. As the text with the name in it scrolls to the very top, their position on the map at right shows up. Note also the tiny links on everybody’s name — if you figure out to click the link, you get large photos. That’s easy to miss.


Do the videos really work embedded here and there? Should the 10-minute video story have been at the beginning? Is the text just too long? Too many photos? Is the whole damn thing just too much?Or is this like a novel — you should curl up with it for an hour?Here’s some of the commentary:

Fishbowl NY:


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