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.