Just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should.
There’s a new verb in the journalism business, and it’s a doozy: to snowfall.
Definition: to publish a whopping great story online that’s stuffed full of integrated multimedia elements — in the manner of the New York Times’ Snow Fall, the epic report on a brutal avalanche that was released late last year to much acclaim.
Snow Fall wasn’t the first of this new wave of online storytelling, and it certainly won’t be the last. But it’s already become the canonical example. Just look: there are similar treatments happening all over the place — exciting things from Pitchfork, from the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian and many others… all, I suppose, “snowfallen”.
These beautiful interactive treatments of stories show no signs of slowing down. In fact, the Times liked it so much it has just appointed a “snowfaller-in-chief” to go and roll out this sort of concept again and again.
At MATTER, we often get asked whether we’re going to be snowfalling too.
After all, we’re a digital publisher, we focus on producing deep long form stories, and we like to surprise and delight our readers. Logic dictates that we should be some of the most dedicated snowfallers around. And yes, in theory that’s true.
Except here’s the thing: the examples being set by Snow Fall are great for grabbing attention — particularly from the Future of Journalism crowd, who are often entranced by the latest shiny thing they see.
But I’m not sure they’re so great for the people who matter most.
Our guiding principle at MATTER from the very beginning has been to try and make life as easy for readers as we can.
Our stories typically clock in around 7,500 words. If you’ve ever read or written anything of substance, you’ll know that it’s a very big deal to really dig in and get to the end of that. As a publisher, you not only need to produce something gripping enough to spend 20, 30, 40 minutes on your page — but you need to let them focus on what they’re there to do.
Yet 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 different variations on this problem, but you see it a lot. And don’t even get me started on Pitchfork’s treatments for, say, this Bat For Lashes piece. A great story, probably, obscured by a design that requires vast reservoirs of concentration, high bandwidth and big screens (just try loading one up your mobile phone).
What does the way the pictures are treated in this Xbox story from Wired actually do?
Snowfalling can work. We aren’t against multimedia at all: we just believe it should help the reader, not hinder them. For example, in MATTER #4, “Uprising”, we ran a series of beautiful interactive maps by Eric Fischer that help show the astonishing extent of natural gas leaks under the streets of some of America’s biggest cities. That helped the story because it was a visual representation of the problem we were talking about: a problem which means methane emissions could be a much larger factor in climate change than we previously realized.
But snowfalling can’t work for everything. When you add multimedia elements, they have to work for the reader. They have to be in the service of the reading experience. They have to make the story better. Instead, they’re already starting to become the entire point of the experience.
In just a few months, it feels as if they’ve turned into digital equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize contender: carefully crafted with a jury of peers in mind, not the reading public.
It’s not to say that those things don’t have their place. Everyone likes prizes, and experimentation is a good thing. But the excitement about snowfalling is also its weakness. When a treatment’s main strength is how unusual it is, that means it can’t ever really be your core product.
We look at people doing pioneering work in this field — BoingBoing a couple of years ago, The Atavist with its sympathetic multimedia apps. And it gives us hope.
But let’s try and stop gratuitous snowfalling in its tracks. Because in the end, no matter how much window dressing you give it, a story about cake is still just a story about cake.
Postscript: I’ve started an open Google Doc to collect examples of these treatments in one place. Please contribute!