Snow Fall and the future of multimedia storytelling

Expansive, interactive, engaging–the New York Times multimedia feature Snow Fall is all of that and more. The six-part online feature took more than six months to produce. Lead reporter John Branch worked with video journalist Catherine Spangler and a team of multimedia producers and graphic designers to develop one of the most talked-about online stories ever. More than 3 million people read and watched it in the first few weeks after it was published. If you haven’t taken a look at it, you should.

The people behind Snow Fall have talked a lot about how it came together, “not just text plus visual elements that are bells and whistles, but a more cohesive framework,” said graphics director Steve Duenes. The result is a story in which animations, slide shows and videos are embedded in the narrative and help to move it forward.

“The team often asked whether a video or piece of audio was adding value to the project, and we edited elements out that felt duplicative,” Spangler said. “With a project of this scale and length, it can be easy to include mass amounts of data, information, visuals and audio because they exist and can compliment the story in different ways. It’s also easy to lose perspective on the big picture. One thing I think the team accomplished with this project is showing judiciousness in which elements best told the story at key moments in the text.”

Some have suggested that Snow Fall epitomizes the future of journalism, but the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson begs to differ, and I happen to agree with him. “There is no feasible way to make six-month sixteen-person multimedia projects the day-to-day future of journalism, nor is there a need to,” Thompson says.

What Snow Fall has in abundance, in addition to visuals and animations, is text. Lots and lots of text. And I’m not convinced that so much text is suited to telling stories that a younger audience, in particular, will want to consume.

As Amy Webb, who heads the consulting firm WebbMedia Group, told a recent Online News Association meeting, video is becoming a bigger driver of content on many news sites.

Webb discussed what she called the resounding success of HuffPost Live, and mentioned that the Washington PostWall Street Journal, and MSN are planning to allocate significant resources to their video production teams…Why? According to Webb, it’s a fear among news executives that “nobody under 30 reads anything anymore.”

The secret to successful content in the future, said Columbia University’s Sree Sreenivasan, will be a balance between text and video. On that score, Snow Fall falls short. But it’s still great journalism, and it’s heartening to think there will always be a place for that kind of work, even if everybody can’t do it every day, nor should they.

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