Last December, the New York Times published a story about something that happened during an avalanche. Something bad, I think, and likely thrilling, evocative, and perhaps, in the end, a stirring illustration of the strength of the human spirit. The story, called “Snow Fall,” was a huge hit. About 3 million readers visited “Snow Fall” in its first week online. Many of the readers came from Twitter and Facebook, and—even better for the Times—a huge number of them were people who didn’t normally read the NYT.
They were drawn not just to the story but to its presentation. “Snow Fall” was marked by huge, full-screen images of snow, animations showing the topography of mountains covered in snow, radar imagery of an approaching snowstorm, and videos of people describing snow. Many of these multimedia elements were triggered by scrolling, so that as you descended the page to read the multi-thousand word piece, you felt as if you were being engulfed by all that snow.
People seemed to like this feeling. “Snow Fall” won a Peabody, a Pulitzer, and the raucous acclaim of press critics everywhere. It was held up as a canonical example of innovative Web journalism, and it has been widely aped. Rolling Stone did a “Snow Fall”-style presentation of a story about Greenland’s ice sheets. Grantland did one for a piece on the Iditarod dog sled race. (What is it about icy climes that demands flashy Web design?) Pitchfork’s recent profile of Daft Punk featured text floating above animated flames. Nowhere has “Snow Fall” been more influential than at the Times itself. The paper has installed an editor to head up a division charged with producing more “Snow Falls.” It published one such piece this week—“The Jockey,” a 10,000-word, video-and-animation-filled profile of a jockey that is filled with a few high points, some low points, and is, in the end, a stirring illustration of the strength of the human spirit.
If I sound a bit clueless about “The Jockey” it’s because I didn’t read it. I tried—but as soon as I scrolled down after reading the first few paragraphs, my screen was overtaken by a pointless video introduction, complete with stirring music, trumpets, and stock horseracing scenes. As the video loaded I clicked away to something else. I tried to get back into the piece later in the day, but I was waylaid by another video. And as you’ve probably guessed, I didn’t read “Snow Fall,” either. I’ve tried to get through it a half dozen times, but every time I found it just too big—too long, too visually distracting, too overproduced. But “The Jockey” is even worse. With its constantly intercutting videos, its unreadability almost feels intentional. Does the Times even care if I read the story? Maybe you’re just supposed to scroll and watch the videos?
I’m all for experimentation in Web journalism. I think videos, graphics, large-format images and other extra-textual elements can improve storytelling. But I suspect that years from now, we’ll look back at “Snow Fall,” “The Jockey,” and their copycats in the same way we now regard 1990s-era dancing hamster animations—as an example of excess, a moment when designers indulged their creativity because they now have the technical means to do so, and not because it improved the story or readers’ understanding of it.
“Snow Fall” grew out of a noble aim. Reading longform journalism on a Web browser is a trudge. As I’ve documented before, traffic stats show that very few people read full articles on the Web. We get bored or distracted and we click away. You’re probably not even reading this now. (And yet, I go on …) The idea behind “Snow Fall”-type narratives is to hold readers’ attention through sheer bombast. Designers overload the page with visual fireworks on the theory that, if readers ever feel themselves drifting, they’ll find something to snap them back to attention. In other words, watch this video of some cool snowboarding tricks:
That sounds like a sensible theory. In practice, though, I suspect “Snow Fall”-type stories induce the opposite effect—they so thoroughly overwhelm readers that they cause them to run for the hills in a panic. (BuzzFeed, take me away!) This happens for a couple reasons. First, these presentations show off so many different kinds of media at once that they lacks any central focus. You’re left feeling at sea—or, I should say, adrift, on an ice floe. What do you look at, what do you click on, what do you read? The Times makes the situation worse by adding page breaks, which, as I’ve argued before, are terribly unfriendly to readers, and give people further opportunities to click away.
Before I go on, here’s a super-cute photo of my 6-month-old daughter.
Finally, all the flashy elements call attention to the story’s heft. Only the very longest stories get the “Snow Fall” treatment—so when you see that designers have pulled out all the stops, you know you’re being asked to spend at least a half hour scrolling around, maybe more. Even before the story has had a chance to pull you in, you begin calculating whether it’s worth your time. Do you have 30 minutes to spare right now? No, you don’t. You’re on your lunch break at work. At that point you either click away, or you save the story to a read-later service like Instapaper or Pocket—and, in the process, strip away all of the multimedia that designers added to the page.
I don’t think I’m alone in feeling repelled by these stories. Earlier this year I asked folks on Twitter if, despite all the acclaim, anyone had made it all the way through “Snow Fall.” At least a half-dozen people said they had, and they urged me to read it. But most people hadn’t. The traffic stats that the Times has reported bolster this theory. In the story’s first week online, people who clicked spent an average of about 12 minutes browsing “Snow Fall.” That’s huge—it’s not unusual for readers to spend less than a minute on a typical news page. But 12 minutes is hardly enough time to make it through “Snow Fall.” If people were spending only that amount of time on the page, most of them weren’t reading the whole thing.
From what I can tell, “The Jockey” hasn’t had anywhere near the success that “Snow Fall” saw in its early days. It hasn’t been all over Twitter and Facebook, and it hasn’t cracked the Times’ Most Popular list as far as I’ve seen. I suspect that’s because the novelty has worn off. What seemed amazing last year now looks rote, and mere presentation alone isn’t enough to get us talking about a story.
That’s for the best. There are ways to incorporate multimedia into Web stories without going over the top. For some good examples, look at Vox Media, whose sports and tech sites have come up with lots of innovative ways to present splashy features. Look at this story about lab-grown meat at the Verge, or this piece about Dick Trickle at SB Nation. They both incorporate large-format pictures, informative graphics, and videos, but neither makes those elements the primary focus of the piece. The extra stuff is presented as an addition to the story, not a distraction from it. If the Times and other sites learn from these examples, it would be a stirring illustration of the strength of the human spirit—one that I’d want to read to the very end.