In my article last week for which I interviewed New York Magazine digital editor Ben Williams about the magazine’s experiments with more ambitious article design, I mentioned the success of the New York Times’ Snow Fall feature and how many publications were trying to emulate it. Snow Fall, for those who don’t know, was a custom-designed article about a deadly avalanche in the state of Washington. In addition to its written reporting, it included extensive use of photography, documentary film making, design, and even GIFs (or at least something like GIFs) to tell its story. It was a visual wonderment and, to many people who visited it, felt like a step forward in storytelling and journalism. According to former New York Times editor Jill Abramson, the piece generated 2.9 million visits. But when I brought up Snow Fall to Williams, he was quick to differentiate what his team does from what the New York Times accomplished. “It’s possible to build them with each issue and without overwhelming the team,” he said of New York’s own custom-designed articles. “I don’t know how long it took to build Snow Fall, but I imagine it was quite a long time. These are more manageable.”
Perhaps something even more telling came later in my article when I asked him whether New York would expand these design elements to more articles on its website, rather than just one a week. “He said there were no current plans of doing so,” I wrote. “In fact, he said, such multimedia offerings can become distractions from the main text of a piece if used indiscriminately.”
This point was more fully detailed in a 2013 Medium article written by Bobbie Johnson. Cleverly titled “Snowfallen,” it laments how the journalism industry has become enamored with Snow Fall stories, by which he means articles that go to extreme lengths to add design elements to a piece that, as he argues, do little more than distract from the story itself:
Almost every example of snowfalling that I’ve seen in action puts reading second to the razzle-dazzle. Can you even remember what happens in Snowfall? Do you remember who wrote it? What did the multimedia help you do?
Snowfall was a good story, but it felt as if getting you to read it was the story’s secondary ambition. When I did it, I was constantly interrupted or distracted. And while the multimedia elements provided atmosphere, in all honesty they didn’t mean much. As a reader they drew me away from what I was there for. I came away from it thinking “ooh, lovely design” — not “this story is amazing”.
There are other problems you run into when rolling out these multimedia extravaganzas. For instance, many publications are reporting that nearly 50 percent of their traffic is coming from mobile phones, yet Snow Fall articles, with all their interactive design and wide page layouts, don’t convert on mobile screens at all. Look at this Pitchfork feature on Bat for Lashes and then visit again on your phone. Designers and coders are spending all this time custom-building an article and their efforts won’t even be seen by half the people who view the article.
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That leads to a second point: the labor that goes into these. By their very nature they’re unscalable, and so any publication has to devote significant resources into developing them, resources that could be spent building more scalable tools and designs that can have utility beyond a single article.
It’s certainly true that Snow Fall stories can be fun to read and, when done well, significantly advance a story. But just as we shouldn’t publish longform journalism just for the sake of doing so, an editor should ask himself, before assigning a team of programmers and designers to pretty up an article, a question that isn’t always asked in the media industry: Why?
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