The New York Times debuted a new multimedia feature Thursday so beautiful it has a lot of people wondering — especially those inside the New York Times — if the mainstream media is about to forgo words and pictures for a whole lot more. Unlike a standard words-on-page article that doesn't diverge too much from print in the design department, "Snow Fall," a multi-"chapter" series by features reporter John Branch, integrates video, photos, and graphics in a way that makes multimedia feel natural and useful, not just tacked on. This tale of last February's Tunnel Creek avalanche — which is also worth reading, not just looking at — opens with full-screen video on loop (we know it looks like a GIF, but it's not) of snow blowing off a mountain. Scrolling down, Branch's text gets peppered with videos and even more striking, big images. Which, of course, has been done before, as plenty of sites play around with how to design a long-form story online — or how to grab a Pulitzer. What's striking is how smoothly the illustrated tale transitions into even more full-bleed-style graphics that are as gorgeous as they are useful, as pictured above. (It's also kind of striking that there are very few advertisements on the page, but, hey, it's early.*)
The Times's first bold leap into an experience-based feature, wholly separated from the rest of its site, has so far received an overwhelmingly positive reception online, with people on Twitter calling it both "beautiful" and "brilliant". And then came the whispers: is this the "future of online journalism"?
For the answer to that question The Atlantic Wire spoke with New York Times Graphics Director Steve Duenes and Deputy Director, Digital Design Andrew Kueneman, who both worked on the project. Though they didn't want to make any proclamations on the rest of the media world, they did offer some hints into what "Snow Fall" might say about the future of design — and maybe, just maybe a site redesign — at the Times.
With the success of "Snow Fall" — the Times has since released more than just this morning's "preview" — can we expect to see more big multimedia projects like this on your site?
Steve Duenes: There have been some previous stories that maybe give us a little taste for what Andrew is contemplating for a redesign of the site.** Ones where you see elements embedded in the story — not just text plus visual elements that are bells and whistles, but a more cohesive framework.
SD: With the Walmart story you see multimedia elements — you have multimedia embedded where it makes sense.
Oh, I see, like the embedded documents and interactive maps. How, specifically, does a project like "Snow Fall" help bring more things like that to the site?
Andrew Kueneman: This story was not produced in our normal CMS, which is probably pretty obvious. Breaking out of that we are able to do a lot more of what you see in terms of the art direction, typograpy and the lay-out. We dont have the luxury of doing this type of design typically on the web. Now we just have more options and more tools.
Are any of those "tools" new technologies for the Times?
SD: The front end coding is not much of a leap beyond other interactive features that we have done in the last two years. It's similar in some ways to some of the devices that have been used on a smaller scale: fixing elements on the page, for example. But the way that it was coded — to try to create this so it wasn't a heavy experience for a reader — that was ambitious for sure.
Yeah, the piece has a great reader experience, with the page flowing from one element to the next so smoothly. How did you accomplish that?
AK: That's our graphics designers and the people who are producing and designing the surrounding page. They are just working together and in constant R&D mode, trying these experiences as you scroll them into your browser and getting to the point where they are not too distracting and are timed right.
Is that something we might see more of on the Times, distraction-free design?
AK: A lot our design ideas you can find in special issues of the magazine, where we try things out. There was one [The Innovations Issue] where as you moved between ideas, the background of your browser changed colors. [Ed note: Duenes also points us to projects here and here.]
But those were for completly separate sites. What prompted a big project like this for one story?
AK: We all are very curious about what's happening with non-traditional reading experiences. Pitchfork has done them; ESPN has done them before, running these full screen pieces with lots of media, I think there is a lot of inspiration out there.
After the inspiration phase, how did this come together?
SD: There was an initial agreement that we wanted to find a way to bring these things together as cohesively as we could. After that, it was just a product of different individuals finding things on their own. For example, Jeremy White, who created the flyover the cascades, collected a lot of elevation data and spent a lot of time on the details of the imagery that he draped over that model knowing that was going to be something that readers would read into and experience and read-out of. That as an underlying goal helped individuals visualize how those things might take shape.
Do these immersive design elements have anything to do with the increasing popularity of tablets?
SD: It was definitely something we talked about. The integration of multimedia video and motion graphics in ways that made them feel like they were part of the body of the story, and not just side bars that you would experience after you were done reading the story hopefully comes through as you consume this on the tablet and even on the phone.
How is different from the way the Times usually does things?
AK: From very early on we had someone dedicated to following the production of the project on the iPad to make sure we had a good experience there.
* When pressed by e-mail for more information on the possibility of advertisements on the "Snow Fall" story, Kueneman wrote the following: "I can't speak to this really — but my hope is that we can create beautiful environments advertisers want to be. I hope the impact is positive."
** And when pressed what we thought was a slip on the Times site redesign, about which we had heard nothing until we spoke with Duenes and Kueneman this afternoon, Kueneman wrote the following: "We are always looking for ways to improve the presentation of our report and enhance the experience for our readers, but we have no specific redesign plans in place."