Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The snowfallization of news: Stories still matter

Criticizing Snow Fall, the 2012 overwhelming multimedia project by The New York Times, has become a sport among journalists and news designers. At the same time, its enormous success has transformed its title into a verb: Snowfalling. Bulky, clunky, and superfluous are adjectives that I've heard being applied to it.

Part of this criticism, I believe, is due to professional envy. In hindsight it is easy to claim (wrongly, as this interview reveals) that this thing can be entirely replicated in an hour using freely available tools, for instance. Yeah, sure, perhaps you can design the placeholder, but ask an amateur to model those mountains with Blender in sixty minutes. Then, tell her to come see me later with questions about cameras, displacement maps, textures, and particles. I will bring some kleenex. These are the facts: the NYT created Snow Fall and you didn't; and the NYT won a Pulitzer prize for it and you didn't*. Get over it.

A different line of criticism is much more thoughtful, relevant, and worth discussing. Here's Khoi Vihn, former design director at NYTimes.com:
"In my own personal, decidedly unscientific polling, of all the people I’ve met who marvel at “Snowfall,” no one has ever told me that they actually read it. (That’s actually not true; someone told me they did read it, but then again that person has three newspapers delivered to her doorstep every morning, so I would say she’s an outlier.) I suspect the same thing will be true of “NSA Files Decoded.” These kinds of things, I think, are meant to be marveled at more than they are meant to be read." (Read the entire comment.)

Vihn is comparing Snow Fall to a recent project by The Guardian, NSA Files: Decoded. He has a point. When designing stories like these, it's easy to get carried away by the bells and whistles, rather than focusing on what you need to explain to your readers, and on how to do it effectively.

However, I think that he's also being unfair. I didn't read Snow Fall entirely myself, but that was not a failure of design, but of content and writing style (see the note below.) The animations and graphics didn't interfere with my understanding of the story, quite the contrary. I got bored because I thought that the stuff that I was reading and seeing was irrelevant. I am just not part of the right audience, perhaps.

But I did read The Guardian's NSA explainer, watched its videos, and enjoyed its infographics. I am a bit biased, though, as some of its authors are friends and former students, but still. It's good journalism. It's well designed and also tightly written —perhaps too tightly for my taste, but that's a different conversation. And I suspect that, at least in part, it exists because Snow Fall, with all its shortcomings, opened the minds of many editors, reporters, and designers.

*About the Pulitzer thing: The award should have been shared with the entire production team, as the topic and the writing style are not that engaging. The story is not bad at all, don't get me wrong, but if it were published without the multimedia elements, I doubt that it would have been selected.


  1. While I agree that the subjective relevance of the subject matter plays a key role, I think that the underlying reason behind the "marvel but not read" effect can be explained by asking ourselves two core questions: How many of us really take the time to stop and meaningfully read long articles like these nowadays? Besides, how many of us would read such long articles using the browser? Maybe I am wrong but, in my experience, at home most people tend to read papers in printed format; the internet is used during those few short breaks at the office or while commuting. That is, I see two factors at play: not only modern readers are lazy readers but also the internet is a "telegraphic" media.

    That said, what is the future of printed media? Maybe one day advanced, innovative, omnipresent and invisible forms of display technology will transform us and the way we consume extensive reading materials from the web (http://bit.ly/16cFGBk). The combination of less stress to the eyes with more portability might push us to go down through more lines of text that surrounds the infographics glory.

    But here it comes a second question: in this bright future of technology, will we still be capable of doing any reading at all?

  2. Thanks for the comments. I have my own opinion about those issues. I still believe that there's a lot of space for long-form narratives and journalism, and perhaps the proof is the success of websites that gather and curate that kind of content, like http://longreads.com/ and http://www.aldaily.com/

    And also, don't forget that these can be read on a tablet computer, not only on a traditional computer screen.

  3. Chris Fahey's comment (http://mczar.me/1aF9E2D) on the original piece bears consideration:

    'I ... maintain a hope that these represent editorial experimentation, and that as these experiments continue, the lessons learned from them (lessons in design, technology, and journalism) will trickle back into the quotidian online reading experiences we have every day.'

    This makes sense; these stories are the _avant garde_.

  4. Hi, I must confess I am a victim of the "marvel but not read" effect, too. I started to read the whole project, but I ended up jumping from videos to animations, giving just some quick gazes at the text.

    I personally don't like reading long texts on a computer screen (I guess tablets help), but I think the main problem is the hybrid mode. If you let your imagination travelling trough emotions and feelings described in the text, you cannot stop to watch all the visualizations. And if you are instead fascinated by the animations (they are awesome!), you will give just few quick looks at the text, looking for some info connecting the story chapters. You cannot do both intensely. It would be like watching a movie and stopping to read a long text on the screen, then watching the movie again. In one case you "see": you let videos and animations create for you the story. In the other case you "imagine", transfoming words in personal images and vibes. If the original aim was to experiment new ways to tell a story, I probably would have limited the text to shorter paragraphs placed among the interactive visualizations, just to connect the "pieces" and shape the story.

    Sorry for my bad English, but I wanted to share my thoughts as visualization and powder-ski lover :)

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