This runs counter to the conventional wisdom that “Snow Fall,” which generated more than 3.5 million page views, is the future of journalism and web design, a future in which every piece of content from Buzzfeed listicles to Walmart.com will use parallax scroll and ensconce the reader in a pillow fort of multimedia goodness.
In May, Hamish McKenzie shot down this vision, saying that the novelty of “Snow Fall”-esque pieces will fade. And indeed, many of the visitors clicked it and quit it after seeing what all the fuss was about.
But Manjoo’s argument is different. He doesn’t dismiss the “Snow Fall” model because it’s too costly or faddish. He straight-up calls it bad web design:
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.
Does Manjoo have a point or is he merely being contrarian? “Slate-being-Slate,” as it were?
The reaction from observers and creators of media was divisive. NYU Professor Jay Rosen (Disclosure: he used to teach me) called the “Snow Fall” backlash “mystifying” while Business Insider’s Joe Weisenthal said Manjoo “gives the Snowfall the burial it deserves” (as an aside, can we start calling it “the Snowfall?” Like “the Batman?”). Early web pioneer Dave Winer lands somewhere in the middle, tweeting, “I don’t think it’s the 2013 equiv of Dancing Hamsters. More like an early Pixar animation.”
So which is it? I think the answer depends on what we seek from web storytelling. Do we seek something beautiful and bold that grabs the attention of the Internet and won’t let go? Or is it more important to tell a story or communicate an idea that sends ripples through culture and does what every journalist secretly wants to do, which is to “change the world”?
If we want beauty, then “Snow Fall” certainly fits the bill. It’s uncontroversially gorgeous. But if we want people to sit down and read our 10,000 word pieces in their entirety, the “Snow Fall” method may not be best, as it gives readers one opportunity after another to click away. Manjoo points out that the average time readers spent on Snow Fall was 12 minutes. Which is huge! But not enough time to read the whole thing.
Here’s another theory: It wasn’t the design that kept people from finishing “Snow Fall” and “The Jockey.” It’s the subject matter. With a million journalistic and non-journalistic distractions pulling us every which way, who has time to read all 10,000 words of piece about an avalanche, tragic though the story may be? Why read about the winningest jockey of all time when we could read about, I don’t know, Syria or the NSA or drones or watch “Orange is the New Black”? Hell, “The Jockey” isn’t even the best horse racing story of the month. That honor goes to the Texas Observer’s “Bloodlines,” a longform piece about how a major player in Texas horse racing became an informant against the Zetas drug cartel. Now there’s a story where I want to know what happens at the end.
There’s yet another way to look at “Snow Fall” and its Snow Spawn, which is that “Snow Fall” is great but it inspired a lot of bad wannabes, like the Nirvana of web design. As someone working on multimedia projects for PandoDaily (with the help of a company I co-founded, Explainer Music) I can speak to this concern. For our first big piece, an explainer on quantum computing, we fell into many of the patterns Manjoo mentions, like overloading the page with interactive elements and looking for any opportunity to showcase parallax scrolling. And while many praised the design, others felt that the bells and whistles distracted from the story.
We think that’s fair criticism. That’s why for our second piece, “Who Killed the Music Industry?” we stripped it down. Way down. We used a piece of software called Scroll Kit, which you may recognize because its owner ruffled the New York Times’ feathers when he claimed it could “replicate Snow Fall in an hour.” But we didn’t want to make the next “Snow Fall.” Instead we used it to more modest ends. We kept the design very clean, used big images, one high-quality video, simple graphs, and of course a lot of words. The only interactive or clever scrolling tricks we employed were used to improve the navigation and readability of the article. At 5,000 words we knew most people wouldn’t read the whole thing. But it was written and designed so you didn’t have to. Want to know how artists get paid on Spotify? Click here. Want to learn about copyright conundrums on YouTube? Click there.
The result? “Who Killed the Music Industry” was one of our most popular and well-read stories of the summer.
If there’s a lesson to take from all this it’s that news outlets should continue to innovate and experiment and try bold new ideas. Just realize that it doesn’t always work. Sometimes the execution is off. Sometimes it’s just a bad idea. Other times it works, but only because it’s the first time anyone’s seen anything like it. Furthermore, there’s a balance you can strike between design that’s unlike MOST things people have seen before but that isn’t so bold that the experiment blows up in your face. Also, don’t write about horse racing.
But let’s not give up on the “Snow Fall” model yet. Some stories might lend themselves beautifully to the approach, even moreso than the original “Snow Fall.” My colleague Hamish McKenzie likens the approach to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Not every song should be a multi-segmented six minute epic. But when it works, the results are sublime.
[Image courtesy Wikimedia]