A List Apart

David Sleight on New-School Publishing

He Ain’t Snowfalling, He’s My Brother

Last year, the New York Times got everybody’s attention with the publication of “Snow Fall,” an experiment in pushing the boundaries of editorial design. They weren’t the first big content player to try to break out of the one-size-fits-all template box, but theirs was the one that got all the big news kids to turn their heads and take notice.

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Fast forward a bit, and top-line pieces from the likes of Pitchfork, ESPN, Vox Media, and the Guardian now make regular appearances in our timelines and inboxes. And each one seems to meet with equally vocal waves of applause and pessimism.

As overdue experiments in art direction and editorial design for the web, these things are important. They’re also polarizing. People either love ’em or hate ’em (or hate on them, anyway). So more than a year after it joined the common news parlance, the question remains: is “snowfalling” worth it?

The biggest knock against “Snow Fall”–style pieces is that they seem to take a lot of time and effort to produce. Now, last time I checked, plenty of things worth doing take time and effort. But let’s give this argument its due. These stories can take a lot of time and effort to produce—at first. The more attempts, the better and more robust the tools become and the smarter organizations get about building them efficiently.

Those gains extend to the browser experience as well, though we’re not quite there yet. A few of these early experiments have been, oh, a wee tad heavy, letting poor performance and poor accessibility get in the way of the story. (Seriously, you can’t get much more “in the way” than building a page that doesn’t load.) Accounting for that needs to be part of the design process, and that process is evolving.

The real implication of the time and resources critique is that there isn’t an adequate return on all this investment. Turns out that creates a damn nice opening for dealing with objections over ads, too.

Since most of these pieces ditch standard ad units to give their designs a little elbow room, there’s a contention that they can’t possibly pay for themselves. The answer on that one is simple: of course they don’t. In fact, few news stories do. To repeat something I said earlier this week, the ad game for major news operations is played in aggregate. If these experiments drive more traffic, link sharing, and interest, they are in fact bolstering CPMs and the ad game for a publication overall. Unless they depend entirely on sponsorships and subscriptions (few do), it’s a net win.

But there’s a bigger picture that extends beyond debating specific executions and business models. These things are about experimentation: necessary design and technical experimentation, something news organizations need to shine at if they want to thrive. That means stopping to shake out how they think about content, again and again.

One of my biggest frustrations as a newsroom creative director was fighting dogma about what web pages should “look like.” Even five years ago, getting organizations to push past the “inverted L” as the One True Layout was a big deal. When you consider how young a medium the web is, that’s insane. It’s improbable that we could’ve arrived at the best and only way to present a story in such a short span of time.

What newsroom design shops have needed is a renewed interest in research and development, and that’s exactly what these pieces are delivering.

The benefits go beyond the plainly obvious. You need good R&D for the same reason you need a good space program. It doesn’t just get you to the Moon. It gives you things like memory foam, scratch-resistant lenses, and Dustbusters. It gets you the workaday byproducts of striving for higher goals.

The JavaScript libraries, design patterns, and tidbits these teams are building to get to a “Snow Fall” are getting repurposed, snapped out, modularized, and evolved in directions big and small. They’ll get used in ways and places we haven’t imagined yet. It won’t be all about scroll-tastic doodads, and it won’t be just for gussying up longform content.

Together with the responsive redesign of the Boston Globe, this represents the most significant progress we’ve seen in online editorial design in years, and by far one of the most “web native” developments in our short history. The “Snow Fall” DNA is already working its way through organizations. Not everything, but parts. And that’s exciting. The worst thing we can say right now is, “Don’t try.”

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