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.”

14 Reader Comments

  1. Great points about the need for experimentation. Also important to acknowledge is how deeply digital media is scarred from the weight of its print-based past. I am very sympathetic to all creative thinkers trying to break the monstrous constraints of the past.

    However…

    The problem with Snow Fall in particular is that, despite being bold and impressive, it’s also editorially Skeumorphic and in my humble opinion concentrates on decorative elements, eye-candy, while taking-away from the actual text of the story (I wrote more about it here: http://www.freshblurbs.com/blog/2013/07/17/snowfall-editorial-skeumorphism.html). Bottom-line: design should never be decoration, it should contribute to the substance and, preferably, get out of the way.

    In a stark contrast, I think, is the similar attempt by Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/world/interactive/2013/nov/01/snowden-nsa-files-surveillance-revelations-decoded#section/1 where the same design techniques actually greatly enhance the reader experience.

    Just my 2c. Thanks for raising an important topic and inviting an open discussion.

  2. love this line: “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.”

    I’m a continually puzzled by the reluctance to put time and effort into making quality content. I understand that budgets and time may be restricted. But if you’re not taking the time and effort to make good content, you’re wasting your time and money anyway.

    Great article, David. Thanks.

  3. @Irakli: Good point about moving past inherited constraints, though I’m not sure what you mean by editorial skeuomorphism. Skeuomorphism typically describes an element that once had a functional purpose (spokes on a wheel providing structural support) but is now purely decorative because it’s been rendered functionally moot (spokes on the hubcaps of a modern car tire). Skeuomorphism is a subset of decoration, but not all decoration is skeuomorphic.

    In the “Snow Fall” context, all the scrolling magic isn’t skeuomorphic because it’s not trying ape behavior from another medium that had a functional purpose. It’s inherently something screen-based media can do and can have a functional purpose.

  4. Great post. I fully agree with your points on “things worth doing take time and effort” and on the need for experimentation, especially for a relatively new medium.

    There’s another facet to the time and effort argument: at some news organizations, the teams responsible for all of the org’s products and platforms also work on editorially-driven initiatives. Some orgs have their own interactive teams, but when there’s not a dedicated team, the trade-off of the time and effort spent on a single piece like Snowfall that is not directly reusable or scalable to other stories (learnings, techniques, sure..) is that other products are de-prioritized.

    When I was at Newsweek and ABC News, this trade off was very real. There were critical ux bugs in products millions of people were using but we weren’t able to address them because of a focus on editorial one-offs. I recognize not every news org faces those same constraints or problems.

  5. I’ve got mixed feelings on these pieces, because fundamentally I agree with the need to experiment and push the boundaries, but on the other hand, get off my lawn I’m trying to read here.

    I actually feel the complete opposite WRT Snowfall vs. the NSA piece. Reading for me is a flow activity, it can take time to get immersed in the piece, and Snowfall offers long swathes of uninterrupted text to do that. OTOH the Guardian piece reads like a Powerpoint presentation to me, with too many breaks in the text flow. There’s an issue with throwing in too much material as well, where something like slide decks might be better linked as supplementals.

  6. @Mark: Thanks, and, I hear you. The interactive design team at BusinessWeek was never larger than 6 people during the time I was there, and was simultaneously responsible for production duties. Sometimes the space for extra projects similar to these was gained through nothing more than sheer force of will.

    My hope is these examples, along with advocacy from smart industry veterans like you, can help convince management it’s worth giving their teams a chance to approach things differently every now and again.

  7. @Mike: I’m avoiding getting into the merits of particular aesthetic and interactive decisions because 1) for every person who likes a particular style, it’s pretty easy to find someone else who hates it, and 2) it’s a moving target. I don’t know that funky scrolling will still be the hallmark of “snowfalling” in a year’s time. Maybe it’ll be something with images, or time-based interactions, or who-knows-what else. The point is, I want them to keep trying and tinkering.

  8. @David, with arguable success, I tried to define “Editorial Skeuomorphism” as a broader definition for context mismatch rather than just: medium mismatch, as in the “traditional” skeuomorphism.

    Or in plain English: I agree with you that it’s not how much effort they spent that is the problem, but I think the end result takes attention away from the primary content rather than enriching it.

  9. I understand the concerns about how these types of design approaches impact readability. I tend to feel that they enhance readability by expanding the experience through a more realized use of the medium. As we do more and more communicating online, journalism has the opportunity to expand on how stories are told.

  10. @mcburton Well, I developed Tarbell (http://tarbell.tribapps.com) to help with producing this type of story. The Chicago Tribune has used it for 50+ projects and there’s probably 20 or 30 projects out there made by others using the tool, a number which is quite rapidly growing with a major new release a couple weeks ago.

  11. I think this article is right-on about R&D. Here’s an instructive story:

    It took two devs about three days to build http://graphics.chicagotribune.com/gunrunning/ to go along with a story about how guns get into the city of Chicago. It was cool, but that’s a lot of effort for a story that had anemic pageview numbers.

    A couple of colleagues saw it and thought the format might work well with our overnight crime reporting. So we built a little standalone tool to generate more stories like it (see http://timeline.chicagotribune.com/chi-timeline-on-the-street-fifth-city-story-gallery-20131103/step/chi-timeline-on-the-street-fifth-city-part-one-20131103 for an example).

    These stories individually do about 5-15% better traffic than regular crime stories on our CMS, and serve a new ad on every slide. It’s a marginal improvement, but because we wrote a generator that mostly automates the process, our breaking desk can crank these out daily without disrupting their normal workflow. 5-15% more traffic and 4-8x more ad impressions adds up to quite a bit of extra engagement and revenue over a year-long period.

  12. I totally agree that it’s important to encourage the news sphere to continue experimenting and tinkering. But if you’re going to run experiments, you need to have clear metrics. I wonder, inside the Guardian or the Times, how success is defined when it comes to these new types of presentation. Does it all come down to pageviews and shares? Or are they shooting for deeper focus/engagement/retention on the part of the reader?

    My knock against these types of articles isn’t that they take too long to produce, it’s that they often create unnecessary distractions, breaking up the reader’s flow and actually impeding their ability to focus. But I have no idea whether that’s actually a concern inside these newsrooms or whether they’re testing engagement at this level.

  13. I loved that Snow Fall was, first and foremost, a new way to engage readers in news content. If no one read the whole thing, I bet they at least skimmed through it and learned more about the story than if they had been confronted with a typical long-form article.

    What’s sad to me is that, for the majority of small newspapers across the country, this type of storytelling is unachievable. Strapped by layoffs, awful and constrictive CMSs and dwindling ad revenue, this type of effort and flexibility is exclusive to the New York Times and similarly large organizations.

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