(Post by Rex Hammock)
In late December, The New York Times published a digital version of a New York Times Magazine article, “Snow Fall: The Avalanche of Tunnel Creek” that has been deservedly touted as a breakthrough in multimedia storytelling.
While I noted it on my blog at the time, the growing praise it has received made me take a second look — and it’s even more impressive the more I spend time with it.
While it contains the same words as the story in print, the version of the article designed for the screen has a completely different “center.” It was conceived, designed and engineered to focus on the story’s flow to a degree that is impossible in print. (Note the way in which its sidebar maps have an animated synchronicity with the narrative.) In print editorial design, especially in the Western world, we consider design elements to be servants of “the word.” In “Snow Fall,” you can see an example of how various media can be combined to reveal a more complete story than words alone. Other media elements do not merely support the written story, they are equal partners.
Unlike so many attempts by those of us who develop content for screen media, the inclusion of various media in “Snow Fall” is seamless and helps provide needed context to the story. Too often, editorial content designed for screens contains such media elements just because we can. (Like with all new media, we learn from our early mistakes.)
“Snow Fall” is great reporting, great storytelling and a wonderful model for demonstrating how new media can, when crafted together with talent and care, enhance or enlarge a story, rather than interfering, competing with or, as too often happens, overwhelming it.
As I noted in my earlier RexBlog post, I especially like the way in which the team (I assume it was a team) made the subtle, but very important decision to publish the story without using the metaphor of the page. The page, for you history buffs, is a rather modern invention, appearing about 2,000 years ago when the codex started to replace scrolls. With the advent of movable type, the page became so dominant a measurement of text-based content that even the pioneers of the browser-based World Wide Web decided to use the metaphor to describe a bottomless “web page.”
“Snow Fall” demonstrates how, when text appears on a screen that can be scrolled down to infinity and beyond, the page is not necessary. (Some form of measurement may be needed for location awareness, but not necessarily a page. In “Snow Fall,” a navigation bar divides the story into “parts.”) *
My only criticism (and this is more observation than criticism) is that the design could be more adaptable to smaller, touch screens — it was obviously designed for the reader of a computer screen, where its brilliance is best experienced.
* One of the reasons I’m a fan of the Instapaper app is its use of the gravity sensors (accelerometers) that enable a mobile device to know “up” from “down” to tilt the device to control the direction and speed of scrolling text.