Snow Fall: Two Ways to Tell a Story

Several weeks ago, in the midst of a busy holiday season, The New York Times attempted to understand its future by telling the story of an avalanche. The story requires about a half hour of your time, and it is best experienced in a quiet room with a reasonably large screen.

Snow Fall

The place to begin is with the text-ish story, the one that requires a lot of on-screen reading, the one that includes various animated maps that show just where, how, and why the avalanche happened. Short videos (each one about a minute long) illustrate the story, and bring the people in the story to life. There are audio files of the emergency calls to Ski Patrol. There are slide shows that help us to understand the life of each skier. The writing is strong and skillful. The whole presentation is an impressive demonstration of how we might experience news and features in the rapidly-advancing future.

It feels like an experiment. The writing is long, more like a NY Times Magazine story than a web story. I felt myself drawn into the story and its environment, and found myself pressing the “volume up” buttons on my keyboard in expectation of some sort of soundtrack to accompany the reading of the text.  Short videos satisfied some of the craving for additional stimulation; they were nicely integrated into the flow of the story and the text presentation. The slide shows that introduce each character are a more awkward fit because they require the reader to leave the chronology of the intense storyline–which is told, mostly, in shades of grey–and to consider each character’s past life–which is told, mostly, in vivid digital color. The visual shift is jarring, made worse by the inclusion of completely irrelevant advertisements that are large enough to disrupt the entire experience (for this type of storytelling, I think I’d prefer a micropayment or subscription model, but I wouldn’t mind seeing an opening, mid-break and closing sponsorship presentation).

After I read, looked at the pictures, followed the maps, watched the short videos, and so on, I felt that I understood what happened at Tunnel Creek.

And then, I watched the 11-minute video documentary that told the whole story. I was struck by how much more effectively the documentary told the same story. The story was tight, the characters were crisply defined, the maps and visuals made more sense because they were narrated, the pace was brisk, the emotions were sharp and devastating. Less was a whole lot more. The documentary made the print-pictures-video-maps presentation feel like a bunch of reporters’ notes and script drafts. I felt certain that the doc had been produced by another team, but no, it had been made by the same New York Times staff.

And all of that confused me. I love to read (less so on the screen, moreso from paper), and I was very impressed by the quality of storytelling in the multimedia format. But after watching the documentary, I found myself wondering whether we’re making too much of this transmedia idea, and whether a well-produced audio-video presentation might provide a more reasonable multimedia future.

Sure, this is just one example, and an early one at that. I’m anxious to see what Atavist has online, and will write about their multimedia storytelling in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, do take the take to explore the NY Times presentations. They’re well worth your time and attention.

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