In 2012, The New York Times published “Snow Fall,” John Branch’s long narrative recounting the avalanche earlier that year at Tunnel Creek in Washington’s Cascade range. The story filled a lot of column inches in the newspaper, but what got everyone’s attention was what the Times did with it online: A digital cover composed of video of windblown snow, plus embedded video interviews, a swooping video fly-over map, a slide show, a motion graphic of the storm system that dumped the snow that roared down Cowboy Mountain, pretty much every trick in the book. The newspaper inadvertently created a new colloquial term for this sort of online treatment. To do what the Times did was to “snowfall” a story.
For the past year, Alcalde, the magazine of the University of Texas at Austin, has been snowfalling stories. It started with a bit of natural history in the July/August 2013 issue, “A Field Guide to the 40 Acres.” Online, the story was spruced up with photos, video (I could watch that squirrel for hours, the ants for not so long), and graphic art that expanded when moused over. (And who knew “moused” would become a verb.)
Alcalde followed its field guide with other snowfall productions: “A Classroom at the Edge of the World,” “The Robots Are Coming,” “Notes from the Violin Olympics,” and “Longhorn Rodeo Rides Again,” which begins with a nifty headline that you unfurl by scrolling down.
It’s latest snowfall is “Monday Monday,” an excerpt from a novel by Elizabeth Crook based on the 1966 sniper attack by Charles Whitman. For those of you not from Texas and younger than me—that last group is numerous—Whitman hauled an arsenal up to the top of the tower that is the UT campus landmark and began shooting. His rampage left 16 dead and 32 wounded. (In this case, the piece online only—it is not a digital version of an excerpt from the novel printed in the magazine, because only Texas Monthly had the rights to that.)
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I asked Taliaferro if anything came as a surprise in producing these pieces. “The biggest surprise has been that, for so long, magazine pros thought the web a limiting space. A web version or online version of a magazine story has always been lesser. Until now. Now you are able for the first time to re-create the kind of reading experience that magazines have owned for so long and do it on the web. Plus, it’s totally freeing. It’s a blank digital canvas. As long as you ask from the outset, How can we best tell this story and with what media? Whatever you come up with for an answer, the web can accommodate it.”
Editors would be advised to keep in mind that something created on a 27-inch monitor may well be read on an iPhone: “My biggest mistake probably has been to forget that the majority of the audience will consume this fancy beautiful thing on their phones or tablets, so that should inform the design from the beginning. Just as the web used to be a lesser version of print, for some time mobile has been lesser than desktop. That is changing, and fast. So now we spend as much time or more on mobile as on desktop. The other mistake I might mention is to succumb to the temptation to put in stuff because you can and not because the story needs it. That’s a good force that print exerts on editors and designers—limited space causes you to be selective, even subtractive. That can be good force. Unchecked, you can stuff your interactive stuff with all kinds of flashy whizzbangs that don’t add to the story, and that does happen a lot.”
Media observers and pixel-stained wretches quickly formed a consensus after “Snow Fall” appeared in the Times: The project was shiny and cool and attention grabbing, but who actually read the story? The whole story? Show of hands? Anybody? Anybody? “I think the conventional wisdom about ‘Snow Fall’ is right,” Taliaferro said. “Its impact was maybe more on the industry than on the readers. And we have struggled a bit to get traffic numbers we think our ‘Snow Fall’ type stories deserve. But that didn’t stop us at the beginning and it doesn’t stop us now. What we try to do is marshal this technology in service of stories that deserve it. When we first started this we were more taken with the flash than we are now. It’s like a young writer who is amazed and thrilled at first by her ability to turn rhetorical cartwheels. As we have matured, like young writers tend to do, we try to move the reader back into the center of every decision. Is this feature necessary? Does it add something to the story? You can see the Times backing off the flash, as well. And that’s natural and OK. Doesn’t change the fact that the power is still there to tell stories better. It’s just about how you use it.”