Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

Everyone Secretly Hates "Snow Fall"

Cody Brown, of Scrollkit, made a replica of the ballyhooed New York Times "Snow Fall" story—in about an hour. Naturally, the Times made a copyright complaint: he was, after all, using their images and whatnot! So he removed it. Then they insisted that he "remove any reference to the New York Times" from his website. Heh.

He writes:

The backlash to “Snow Fall” is that it’s an indulgence only the Times can afford. It took them six months and a powerful multi-person dev team to hand-code it. Most news orgs don’t have anywhere near these kinds of resources, and this is why we’ve spent the past year creating a tool that opens the ability to produce these stories to significantly more people.

This is a good point, even though we should note that it's in service of promoting his company, and it's not something many people want to say in public. (Update: We want to be clear that, yeah, there was not actually SIX MONTHS of coding. That's way over the top.) Privately, the kvetching about Snow Fall among "media people" has been pretty intense. Each time this topic comes up around journalism profs or reporters, there's a huge amount of eye-rolling. That eye-rolling is always, however, as it should be, preceded by praise: it was great work, it needed to be done, all that jazz. Everyone appreciates the labor; they just don't think it changes everything. There's generally five ideas people bring up.

Their points generally are:

• Although it was an exceedingly well-reported story that lent itself well to lovely web expression, the story itself was not particularly newsworthy, or recent, or ground-breaking, or exclusive.

• During the story's construction, it became a situation where it seemed—at least from the outside—like the form began to demand unreasonable length of the content.

• It was a monetary sinkhole: while the coding seems spectacular (and it didn't destroy browsers, unlike recent efforts by Pitchfork), the sheer person-hours devoted to it were financially untenable.

• The obvious lack of involvement of the sales team at the paper was incredibly short-sighted.

• With an average of 12 minutes on site for its visitors (which is to be fair very, very long!), there's still no way most visitors actually read that story. They came for spectacle.

The off-record beefing about Snow Fall in many ways isn't even Snow Fall's fault! It's the hubbub that surrounded it after—all the Snow Fall will save media baloney. We all like Snow Fall, we're just tired of having to hear about it at conference after conference and panel after panel. Besides: not made like that it won't "save journalism." No way.

It's a shame that the Snow Fall model eclipsed the Nate Silver model in the imagination of the "future of journalism" crowd. In early 2012, 1% of Times readers were reading Nate Silver; as the election drew near, on a single day, 20% of Times readers came to read Nate. Using traffic from September of 2012, the Times was doing about 8 to 9 million people a day overall, in Comscore numbers (so: vastly undercounted probably, and as the election drew near, traffic surely increased).

So Nate Silver basically did Snow Fall-level traffic in just a single day. As cyclical as politics traffic obviously is, that's still a much better future of journalism—and a much better use of budget.

22 Comments / Post A Comment

pemulis (#903)

Worse still is the notes you'll get from helpful sales people about Snowfall. "Why don't we do this?" YES WHY DON'T WE

Wait, so Snow Fall is the reason why so many sites are now publishing stories in that massively wide, animation-heavy format that scrolls at the speed of molasses that I hate with a blinding fury? At least I know who to blame now, so I guess that's something.

SkinnyNerd (#224,784)

@major disaster People actually prefer this to typical articles?

jolie (#16)

Plenty of people are using parallax css scrolling and 100% image-width and retina-friendly whatnots and all that jazz to produce and present stories, from The Verge to Grantland to the aforementioned Pitchfork joints. (Some of these really work; for instance, Laura June's feature in January on video game arcades.) They're not spending in the same way to do it, however. (OR? ARE THEY? It's worth pointing out that I believe Vox Media, publishers of The Verge, have TEN DESIGNERS on staff. (Designers! God bless.)) It's actually interesting that these stories are starting to become a "thing"; the presentation in general is already verging on cliché.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@Choire Sicha To be fair, when the New York Times sends somebody out for coffee it still probably ends up taking like six weeks and costing four million dollars.

SkinnyNerd (#224,784)

@Choire Sicha "parallax css scrolling" Oh this thing has a name? Now I doubly dislike it.

@jolie I just want to know who made the rule that these things all have to be about snow.

@Choire Sicha

It's really just an aspiration to occasionally break out of our database-driven blogging templates to properly support deserving writing and video w/ unique magazine-style layouts, interactive visuals, etc that hopefully make it more enjoyable to read + understand.

We've been actively experimenting with the appropriate process, tools and people necessary to make it a sustainable effort across The Verge, Polygon and SB Nation because the response from readers and advertisers has been positive. We have 15 designers on the product team at Vox (designers are the best right?), but only three of them are focused on The Verge and only two of them are involved directly with the editorial design + production collaboration. We'll invest more because it's working for us on a number of levels. We're not spending in the same way that the NYT is, but we also aren't creating 3D models of mountains.

What makes Snow Fall interesting to me is the editorial / design / development collaboration that resulted in using the power of the medium to tell the story. There are plenty of things to pick at – advertising, user experience, performance – but it was a good experiment to learn from. The Scroll Kit thing worries me because it suggests to folks that you can completely short-cut that sort of editorial design collaboration with magic technology solutions. Nope, can't.

My longform comments needs a better layout. Can I get some parallax CSS scrolling up in this piece?

Agree, mostly. On the other hand, everyone was talking about the NY Times, and so some of those dollars / hours can be considered an investment not just in a story, but in a brand building exercise.

Maybe it's because the content was Snow Fall-worthy to begin with? No, it wasn't exclusive or current or groundbreaking, but it read like Mark Bowden or Sebastian Junger or Jon Krakauer. Stories like that seem to lend themselves to the sort of interactivity-splaining that was the hallmark of Snow Fall.

I would have read Branch's story in just about any format (I ended up reading it on the NYT app on the subway, which was decidedly less flashy). While not many stories may rise to the level of Snow Fall-worthy treatment, I guess Choire's point is that people will still try to shove the square peg in the round hole. If the content isn't there, the presentation really doesn't matter.

daemonsquire (#9,523)

Tell me more about "the Nate Silver model". Does it involve more columns by statisticians?
(honest question: what are the characteristics to be propogated?)

daemonsquire (#9,523)

(aagh–propagated! Prop-aagh-ated.)

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@daemonsquire I think you mean jropagated?

NinetyNine (#98)

There's a tool that creates fully 3-D rendered maps in under an hour? Man, CSS has gotten really advanced.

Bryan Keller (#3,804)

I just assumed the Times was counting on parlaying this thing into a big movie deal. That should more than pay for the parallax CSS coding and all the other bliz blaz.

@Bryan Keller : Good thing it never worked out. I mean, the Times publishes one high-profile piece like this, next thing you know it gets expanded into a best-selling book, which in turn gets optioned for a big-budget movie, and soon enough you're staring down the barrel of a GQ-published confession about the Times's out-of-control haute-couture shopping habits, accompanied by a retina-searing photo of Sulzberger Jr. modeling his Versace ostrich-skin codpiece.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

All the high-end gear, class marking, competitive viciousness, technical sophistication and cultural capital that gets lavished on what amounts to hanging around and killing time in expensive company until you suddenly find yourself hurtling down a mountainside in the middle of a vast, lethal snowball… But enough about the New York Times and the fate of journalism; let us speak of winter sports in America.

beschizza (#1,421)

Basic parralaxy type layouts are easy. Here's one I did a couple of weeks ago.

The times just has to shit gold and be seen to shit it.

mikkipedia (#4,023)

All those charts and none of them about how many avalanches are caused by illegal back country skiing.

lightbox (#244,165)

Did the fact that NYT launched an ebook line in mid-Dec with Snowfall escape notice? Snowfall was the very first ebook single so the economics could be that the whole thing was written off as PR for the new business:

Q83IHng (#244,307)


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