"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.