Snow Fall Breakdown: How The New York Times Built a Multimedia Story

Snow Fall

UPDATE 1/3/2013: My fellow MCDM alum Rebekah Peterson shared a great Q&A with the multimedia team behind “Snow Fall” on Source. I held my breath on first read, afraid they were going to say something that completely contradicted my analysis, but I fared pretty well. If my breakdown is too “in the weeds” for you, I think you’ll find Source’s Q&A pretty accessible.

The recent New York Times multimedia story “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek” got a lot of attention. As Rebecca Greenfield put it on The Atlantic Wire, the piece “…integrates video, photos, and graphics in a way that makes multimedia feel natural and useful, not just tacked on.” The Times was rightfully proud of the piece and what it means for online journalism, boldly stating “Clearly, this is something The Times hopes to do more of, and others will undoubtedly do it, as well.”

It struck me as a beautifully designed and stunningly effective example of multimedia online storytelling and I couldn’t wait to share it at the public television station where I am the Director of the Interactive department. I was motivated in part to share as a means of saying “this is what we need to be capable of doing to survive.”

What makes the piece so remarkable isn’t that the New York Times has created anything new in a technical sense. It’s that instead of retreating from what’s disrupting their business they have embraced it and made it even better by using it to showcase their traditional strength: Meaningful storytelling.

While I love it as a strategic approach to storytelling, I also understand it as a piece of front end web development. A decade ago, the third phase of my media career led me to learn in depth how web technologies are designed to work together. That dive into the logistics of web development continues to shape my strategic and tactical thinking as a manager and I believe good online managers need to be familiar with the actual work of building digital media products. Businesses that succeed best in the online medium have managers who apply their real working knowledge of how it works to strategic decision making.

What follows is my technical breakdown of the front end code that makes the Times piece such an effective experience. My target audience is digital media managers with some interest in knowing some of the technical aspects of what goes into a presentation like this.
Continue reading