"Snowfall," verb:
To execute the type of expensive, time-consuming, longform-narrative, multimedia storytelling that earned the Times' ambitious "Snow Fall" feature a Pulitzer last [April]. 
 - Jill Abramson, Executive Editor of the New York Times

The NY Times is at it again. In The Jockey, their second major effort exploring what is possible when telling stories online, we find an exemplar of current best practices:

  • start with a good story
  • add well-crafted writing, photography and video
  • host everything in an interface designed for reading, devoid of all the "click-me" cruft; and
  • sprinkle in a few, well-chosen HTML5 tricks like fading to black before a video starts.
 One of 8 pages from the NY Times' latest project:  The Jockey

One of 8 pages from the NY Times' latest project: The Jockey

I love the way this page gives off strong vibes of "stop surfing and settle in." Starting the scroll on page one feels like cracking open a new book or settling into a theater seat as the lights go down. I'm in the hands of an author and creative team with high-production values, promising a deep and engaging story.

It's not hard to imagine many writers, photographers, and videographers at the Times wanting to showcase their work in such a beautiful setting. So it is perhaps unsurprising when Jill Abramson tells us "Everyone wants to snowfall now, every day, all desks."

This is not limited to the staff of the Times. With over 3.5 million views, a lot of people took note of "Snow Fall." Several of the front-end coders we work with mentioned clients sending them a link to "Snow Fall" and asking, "how much to do something like this for us?" And therein lies the rub. 

Projects like this take far more time and money than a regular NY Times feature. Notice that in Abramson's definition the first two of five adjectives were "expensive" and "time-consuming". And consider that "Snow Fall" was released in December of 2012 to widespread praise and millions of readers, received the Pulitzer in April, but the second project of this type wasn't released until August of 2013.

Margaret Sullivan, author of the Times' "Public Editor's Journal," gives us a look behind the curtain into the decision making behind "Who Gets to Snow Fall."

Sullivan goes deeper than asking "why so few" and "who gets to play" when she quotes Farhad Manjoo asking whether or not these techniques improve the story or "readers' understanding of it." And this is where the discussion pivots neatly into a question of instructional design. 

In 2004, as Soomo produced our first works of multimedia storytelling for American Government courses, it was clear that the expense of creating original, well-crafted narrative and video content required us to carefully prioritize where such content was most needed and would have the biggest impact on learning.  And based on all our experience since, we can answer Manjoo's question with a confident "yes."

 Call it up on a mobile device and the presentation is different, but just as thoughtful.

Call it up on a mobile device and the presentation is different, but just as thoughtful.

Pictures are sometimes worth more than 1,000 words and can tell stories which words just aren't up to. Imagine geography without maps or biology without illustration. Likewise, video can humanize topics in ways that elude even the best of writers. Challenging preconceptions, creating empathy and a dozen other tasks are performed more ably by video, images, or illustration than text alone.

However, it's essential to notice that it's not simply the media at play or the large budget that increase understanding. What we see in both "Snow Fall" and "The Jockey" is a team taking the time to ask "what are we trying to explain here?" and "what's the best way to explain that?" They are then free to use words, images, videos, maps, or illustrations appropriately, deploying each to explain what it explains best. 

As Dean Baquet, managing editor at the Times, tells Sullivan, "We’re just learning how to do them." And here journalism and instructional design overlap. We are all still learning how to tell multimedia stories online. And we are all indebted to the NY Times for these pioneering efforts that have done so much to show us what's possible.


Pages, Practice, Peers, and the Pro

This spring I set out to learn more about running and, along the way, stumbled into learning something about why courses typically include what they do: a book, assignments, classmates and a professor. 

It started, as so many adventures do, with a book. In this case Chi Running. Authors Danny and Katherine Dreyer (Asheville locals) draw on experience in Tai Chi to provide a perspective on running which emphasizes good mechanics and relaxed movement. For someone prone to pushing too hard too soon and causing self-inflicted injuries like shin splints, the promise of this approach is quite appealing. 

The Pages

In their book, the Dreyers layout all the basic concepts, the theory behind them, methods of practice and, as is required of all fitness books, a liberal supply of anecdotes. Having taught these ideas to hundreds of people, they have a strong sense of what to introduce and when, how much they need to say to get the point across, and how to say it memorably. 

The Practice

There is a certain irony in reading a book about running while sitting on your couch. To learn in any meaningful way, the ideas have to be put into practice. So I lace up my go-fasters and hit the streets of West Asheville. Some of the concepts are immediately rewarding to apply, such as "land on the middle of your foot, not your heels." Others mystify me: "running uphill, use your arms and abs instead of your legs." I make some progress, but can only glean so much feedback from my reflection in store fronts as I trot past. To learn more, I need people.

The Peers

On Saturday mornings, a small group of new Chi Runners gather to do steadily longer runs in preparation for the Asheville Marathon this Fall. After an awkward period of walking up to people in the park and asking “are you here to chi run?” I find the group and soon we are off for a mellow five miles. 

The biggest gain from the peer group for me turns out to be not informative, but social. Now there is a time, place and prescribed route for doing the long runs each week. Having people who expect me and who will ask where I’ve been if I miss a week is very different than having a plan in a spreadsheet. And there is now a recurring appointment on my calendar for Saturday mornings which makes it a lot easier to defend that time from encroaching obligations. The peer group quickly becomes a commitment, to other humans, which I need to keep and this keeps me on track as the miles escalate. 

However, these lovely, generous, wonderful people, share roughly the same level of understanding and experience that I have. We are all beginners. And while it is helpful to hear how others had interpreted one idea or another, none of us had any real authority. No expertise. What I needed was an instructor.

The Pro

According to the official website, Jeff is a Master Instructor of Chi Running. We meet early one morning at a school track and my learning is accelerated dramatically.  Jeff has amazing powers no book could ever have. For example, he can:

  • give feedback and correction in real time based on what he sees me doing
  • diagnose my particular problems and guide me to resolving those
  • answer my questions

When Danny and Katherine wrote the book they were writing for everyone - that's the nature of a book. But what Jeff says on the track is just for me, focusing on what is holding me back and the dozen things I most need to work on next. This hour cost four times what the book cost, but it is well worth it for the growth in understanding.

The Lesson

So I return to West Asheville neighborhoods to work on the things Jeff explained and to get ready for my next Saturday long run. And somewhere between the ice cream shop and the mattress store it occurs to me: 

  • PAGES - Without the book, I would be trying to capture and organize a collection of snippets gleaned here and there. Having it all in one place as a cohesive work of instruction is really helpful.
  • PRACTICE - The running I do alone is what a science lab or paper writing is supposed to be; a chance to try these ideas out. Learning without application is like reading about running while sitting on the couch. 
  • PEERS - The Saturday runners are my class and very quickly created accountability. As thin as our connections are, I still felt the pull of “I have to go.” And on rainy mornings, this commitment makes all the difference. 
  • PRO - Jeff, the coach, is my instructor. Individualized attention. Diagnosing my particular problems and providing the focused instruction I need. Answering questions about the material. Telling me which parts I'm understanding and where I still need work.

Like you, I’ve been around this magical mix of book, practice, peers and instructor since kindergarten. But this summer, in light of my adventures in Chi Running, it’s making a lot more sense. It feels less like “the way we’ve always done it” and more like the wisdom of tradition; all the key ingredients to give students the best chance of success.