On February 19, 2012, sixteen accomplished backcountry skiers witnessed an avalanche at Cowboy Mountain, located about 75 miles east of Seattle. Five were caught in the avalanche itself. Three died.
Nearly a year later, The New York Times published a multi-chaptered online multimedia account of the story written by reporter John Branch, "Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek," with the graphics, design, video, animation, and editing of more than a dozen others.
Even before Snow Fall made it to the Sunday print edition, outlets such as The Atlantic Wire and Poynter Institute published articles praising the online version, posing the question implicit from much of the Twitter traffic, "Is this the future of online journalism?"
By the next day—still before Snow Fall appeared in print—Derek Thompson writing in The Atlantic Wire answered that question in his article 'Snow Fall' isn't the Future of Journalism. Thompson concludes: "Give 'Snow Fall' the respect it deserves. It doesn't need to bear the augury of 'journalism of the future.' It's just a rare and sensational gift for readers in the present. That's quite enough."
By April, 2013, Snow Fall was awarded the Pulitzer prize, of which the Pulitzer prize committee noted was "enhanced by its deft integration of multimedia elements."
Here, Snow Fall author John Branch talks about his impressions of the multimedia treatment of his story, revealing that text is still king at the Times but that he might have written the story differently if there hadn't been any multimedia elements.
(Many thanks to Mr. Branch for providing photos and capturing his side of the conversation: video via Skype; audio via iPhone/headset; interview captured in January, 2013)
RF: You wrote in the conclusion of Snow Fall itself that this was "One deadly avalanche accident among many, perhaps no more worthy of attention than any other." So what prompted your coverage of it in the first place?
JB: At the time of the avalanche, we wrote a story. It wasn't me, it was a freelancer out of Colorado and it ran on A1 of the Times just after this avalanche in Washington. It was about two months later my sports editor came to me and said, 'Do you remember that avalanche back in Washington?' I said, 'Yeah, vaguely.' He said, 'It is just kind of gnawing at me. I feel like there is more there.' And I started reporting, starting all over from scratch.
So when did you think you had something more than just another print story?
It was pretty quickly after I talked with several people who were there. I found that there was a general willingness of people to talk with me about this, and to be very honest about what happened, and get into some great detail. It was probably after about a month of reporting I brought back what was basically a giant, electronic file of my interviews—probably thirty-thousand words of basically nothing but quotes chronologically placed. And the editors read through it, and said 'Yeah, there's something that's very compelling here.'
You mentioned the chronologic quotes, but ultimately chose a different structure for the piece?
Before I started writing it, my editor—Joe Sexton—encouraged me to read some of the other disaster-type pieces that are out there. A colleague of mine at the Times, Barry Bearak, wrote a story of similar length about the tsunami in Thailand a few years ago. Chris Chivers wrote about the school siege in the former Soviet Union a few years ago. Even things like Into Thin Air—Jon Krakauer—you know, so I took a little bit of a lead from that with Joe Sexton's encouragement to just tell the story as it unfolds as opposed to doing something more journalistic-Timesian kind of nut-graph way.
Were those influences—reading Krakauer, Chivers and Bearak—why you chose not to reveal some things from the start?
I'm not sure how much we went out of our way to not reveal exactly everything.
There was an editor who saw the story shortly before it ran noticed that I had quoted one of the skiers, Elyse Saugstad, pretty high up in the story.
Not high in that first section, but I think high in that second section, and he said, 'You know what, I wasn't sure she had lived or not, and now I realize that she did because you just quoted her.'
And those were kind of some of the decisions we made, asking 'Oh, should we take that quote out?'
We're not trying to be deceptive here, but I guess in some ways the power of some stories is that there's some suspense built up.
And so, if I remember right, we took that quote out.
(N.B.: In the online version of Snow Fall, the first section includes a video of Elyse Saugstad describing how she was caught in the avalanche, eliminating any suspense as to her survival.)
What was the criteria to create a video element and choose the subject?
For a lot of stories that we do at the Times, the reporter goes out, figures out what the story is, and then we'll usually assign a photographer who then sort of back-tracks sort of and says, 'Ok, let me follow and shoot this, the corresponding photos for the story.' And on some stories we'll say, 'You know what, this lends itself to video, whether its video interviews or some sort of collected footage of this.' And we got to the point where we had that happening: we realized there's a story here; we had a photographer assigned to it and we had a video journalist assigned to it. At that point, it was before we started working on all the graphics and started really thinking about the presentation of the entire thing. But by that time I think I had interviewed just about everybody.
So there was a deliberate effort to re-live interviews you had already had?
In a perfect world I would have a video journalist with me everywhere I go. But it doesn't work that way, and so I'll do a lot of phone interviews or interviews in person. And then, when it makes sense to do something bigger in terms of images and video, then I will usually bring in a video journalist and sort of help guide them. So I'm re-interviewing with the video journalist sitting next to me.
Some of the video was captured by some of the people in the story with helmet cams. Was that something that you felt you had to use?
Three people had GoPro cameras on their helmets. We used footage from two of them and I can tell you about the third one in a moment. But the two that we ended up using, I'm not sure we knew we were going to use them really until pretty late in the process. For example, from Elyse Saugstad we had video of what it was like to be skiing in there three minutes before the avalanche happened. Ron Pankey had a video that had footage of what they discovered at the bottom. When we saw that, we realized that's a huge, very emotional, powerful moment when they see a ski pole sticking out of the snow. The third video that we did not use was from Rob Castillo, who held on to two trees during the avalanche. What it showed was the avalanche overwhelming him. He had turned away from it, but you can see for about thirty seconds the tree branches in front of him and pine needles and things as the avalanche went over him. Everything kind of went dark and there were little glimpses. Then he turned back around and there was nobody there. He and I had several long discussions about us using that video to help people understand what it looked like and what it felt like. And in the end, after he consulted with some of the people who were lost—because it was basically the final images of them right before they were struck by the avalanche—he decided he didn't want those published. I was able to see the video, which helped inform the story, but we very much respected his decision to not have those out to the world, and to keep those private.
That would be very powerful, emotional, as was some of the slideshows, particularly with the skiers' photos as children. What was behind including them?
Well it's funny because everyone I've talked to has said 'Hey, you know I enjoyed your avalanche story' and it was an avalanche story. But I think like any good story, it's really a story about people. And I think we realized early on, especially once I realized everybody for the most part was going to be cooperative, we want to portray these people as fully as possible. It's why I wanted to have all 16 of them as part of the story. These are all real people with real lives, some with children, some of them married, some not, other jobs, you know. And I think we wanted to go as far out of our way as we could to portray them as real people, not just skiers. And part of doing that was just showing them as kids.
To the slideshows, none have any audio going along with them. Why no accompanying audio?
First, logistically, it would have been somewhat difficult to track down everybody again and try to coordinate and collect enough audio that we thought would make sense over whatever their pictures would be. If the slideshows became an audio slideshow, it might be sort of difficult to know what sort of audio we'd want in there that wouldn't give away too much of the story. Second, I think we were a little bit nervous about having Snow Fall scroll through and be as seamless as possible. And so even with the videos we were a little reluctant to make them very long because we didn't want people to click on the video and then sort of forget where they were in the story—we didn't want to take them away from the story.
You said, 'Not taking people away from the story'—is that why the longer video documentary got pushed to the very end?
Yeah, that was one of the discussions all along. Typically in The New York Times you would see here is the story and click here to see the video. But we realized that the video would give the story away. Catherine Spangler—who did the documentary and recorded all the video interviews for us—did a wonderful video. It was somewhat sacrificed for the broader story and the broader chronological narrative. We did ensure it was available on YouTube to at least get people to see it. Hopefully people who made it to the end of Snow Fall saw it and said, 'Oh, now I'm going to click on this video and see what's there.'
There was one instance of a multimedia element in the 'Descent begins' chapter—following the various skiers paths down the mountain—where I found myself going back and forth quite a bit between the text and the multimedia element. Was there any discussion about this particular element?
Yeah, you know, it's interesting: I think if I knew all along that there would be no interactive graphic elements like this, I might have written it a tad bit differently. I realized, 'You know what, this could be a crutch for me.' There were 16 characters—if you want to call them "characters"—in this story. I wanted each person to have somewhat an equal role in this. That was important to me. Could I have pulled it off in print only? I don't know. Debatable. But I think we were able to pull it off in large part because of the multimedia. I tried to write this story so it can stand on its own, and if you're only reading the story, hopefully it'll make sense to you. But I knew in the back of my mind the reader would have some sort of guide.
Were there any multimedia elements that were thrown out, where you said 'No, this just doesn't work, throw it away'?
One that was difficult for us was trying to re-create the avalanche. And one of the lucky things that happened to us was that when I was in Anchorage for an international science workshop on snow [for background], one of the presentations there was about modeling future avalanches. There's a company in Switzerland that does this, and as I watched their presentation, I said, 'Wait a second, if you can model future avalanches, you should be able to model a past avalanche.' And they said 'Yeah, if you can give us some data we can do that.' So we gave them all the data we had, and they were able to kind of recreate the avalanche. The last week or so as we were doing this they were trying to really tinker with this. There was questions about whether that graphic had a fair representation of the speed. It didn't. So that's one of the things they did do with sound. So we were really trying to tinker with, you know, what sort of represents it most accurately. There was a lot of tinkering with the multimedia elements. I didn't see most of it. I wasn't privy to most of it, but I was privy to some of the final tweaks at the end.
So how much did the editors of the various media components consult you?
I was part of most of those meetings.
I think we sat down initially and during the process of this there were a lot of conference calls.
They had kind of storyboarded how this might be kind of one big scrolling piece and then they said 'Where along the way can we help explain things?'
So those discussions were part of a group thing were we all decided that it would be hugely helpful to explain to people more.
And then Steve Dueness, who is the graphics director at the Times, assigned a different graphic artist to each of these different projects.
As complex as the individual graphics are—we didn't want to overwhelm people with bells and whistles—we weren't trying to show off.
You'll note, for example, the colors are somewhat muted.
There really aren't that many elements.
The elements themselves I think are spectacular, but there aren't that many of them.
(N.B.: With more than 50 multimedia elements, Snow Fall averaged one multimedia element for every three-hundred words.)
To the multimedia elements, generally, was there a conscious decision to take any text out knowing a multimedia element would be there to help describe it?
This is a great question. And this was a discussion—a very serious discussion. When it came up that we thought we might do this in a different way, it was thrown out there that we might have to change some of the text of the story to make it fit, so that it makes sense, so that the transitions make sense into some of these graphics or into some of these video interviews. And when that subject was first broached, Joe Sexton, the sports editor, said, 'No, we're not doing that. We're not touching the copy.' He was very protective of the words, and said, 'That's a non-starter. We're not going to mess around with the copy. You guys can do whatever you want around the copy, but you know, the copy is the thing.' And a couple other of the editors said, 'You know what, let's just sort of see where it goes and we'll deal with this as it comes up.' As it turns out, they built the thing and I don't think we changed any words.
Robert Frederick has created multimedia and written about science, mathematics, business, and education for a variety of outlets, including Science, NPR, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He is a multimedia contributor to the Science Writers' Handbook, which published this spring.