December 20, 2012

The New York Times is pushing multimedia storytelling in an exciting direction with a new project drawing deservedly high praise.

Snow Fall tells the story of skiers and snowboarders trapped beneath an avalanche in Washington state’s Cascade Mountains.

And it tells that story through text, photos, videos and interactive graphics that blend seamlessly and come alive on the Web page. I talked to Graphics Director Steve Duenes about how they pulled this off.

The goal, Duenes said, was to “find ways to allow readers to read into, and then through multimedia, and then out of multimedia. So it didn’t feel like you were taking a detour, but the multimedia was part of the one narrative flow.”

You can see the difference clearly in this side-by-side comparison. The left side shows how multimedia is segregated in a typical New York Times article (the Sunday Magazine profile of Jerry Seinfeld), and on the right side is the first page of the Snow Fall project.

“Our hope is that there’s some amount of surprise but that this feels kind of natural,” Duenes said. “That it doesn’t seem like a puzzle or something that has to be figured out, but as you read it just makes sense. … The experience sort of absorbs you. That was really the intention — to try to get closer to a seamless and coherent article that included all of the elements that made the article strong.”

This project builds on some precedent.

The Times used a special template for its coverage in 2010 of the U.S. war logs provided by Wikileaks. The Wal-Mart Abroad series investigating the retailer’s bribery practices got a special design treatment. And a magazine feature this October about California agriculture also blew up the template and placed large photos beside the text.

Those were all interesting visual designs, but many of the multimedia elements weren’t actually placed based on the narrative flow. The new Snow Fall project seems like a real step up not just in visual design but in coherent storytelling.

We might see more of this approach bleed into everyday New York Times articles. Deputy Director of Digital Design Andrew Kueneman told me the Times will “continue to release iterative improvements to our standard article templates,” including “the ability to place media and other story components more deliberately alongside the text — among other improvements.”

One of the big keys to pulling the Snow Fall project together was the collaboration between writer John Branch, the sports editors and graphics editors, Duenes said.

To tell a story seamlessly with text and multimedia, those elements have to actually fit into the same narrative flow. That means lots of coordination, rather than just dumping a finished article on the graphics desk.

“As he [Branch] started to write, we were looking at drafts and thinking about the places where it made sense to embed something,” Duenes said. “The multimedia plus the story were moving along parallel tracks. We were communicating often as things were progressing, to see how these things might all catch up to each other.”

Here are some of the graphical elements that enhance the story.

First, the reader is greeted by a full-width header with background video and audio of windswept snow. It’s an almost cinematic scene-setter that pulls the reader into the story.

Further down, a flyover animation transports the reader to the mountains and ski areas where the story takes place. Graphics Editor Jeremy White gathered LIDAR elevation data and satellite imagery for the terrain, created a virtual model and then generated the animation:

And there is a small bio card that accompanies the introduction of each character, showing his or her photo, name, age and occupation. Clicking the card opens a hovering slideshow that helps you get to know that person better.

Those are just some highlights from the first piece of the story. There are five other sections that were published late Thursday afternoon. An e-book version is coming soon, though it will be mostly text-based. The story will also appear in a special print section in the Sunday paper.

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Jeff Sonderman ( is the Digital Media Fellow at The Poynter Institute. He focuses on innovations and strategies for mobile platforms and social media in…
Jeff Sonderman

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