Formats Unpacked: Snow Fall

How a storytelling format became so popular it became a verb

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Today I’m unpacking a format that provided a structure everyone wanted to copy and in doing so gave an experimental form of storytelling a clear direction for the future.

It’s a controversial choice, but I fine with that.


What’s it called?

Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek (multimedia story)

What’s the format?

A New York Times six-part, 15,000 word, multimedia story about an avalanche. It combines text, interactive graphics, animated simulations and aerial videos, all of which are triggered as the reader scrolls. The clickless experience makes it feel smooth and seamless, and unlike many multimedia stories that came before it, each piece of media enhances the story rather than distracts from it.

What’s the magic that makes it special?

Snow Fall introduced to the world of multimedia storytelling, two vital components - order and structure - that were missing in the experimental pre-Snow Fall years. It’s a controversial choice that may shock many of my peers, but before I dig into that let me give a brief history for the uninitiated. 

Snow Fall had had an interesting critical reception. When it launched on December 20th 2012 it became THE most talked about online news articles at the time. For years people had been discussing what the future of journalism and longform storytelling would look like, and now they had an answer - the future of journalism was Snow Fall. “Rarely, we suspect, has there ever been a more fully realized partnership of fine writing and state of the art multimedia put before the features jury,” said The Pulitzer Prize people in 2013 when handing over the award for Feature Writing. 

But it wasn’t long before the backlash started. The problem was, Snowfall took a team of sixteen people six months to develop. The New York Times had the resources to do something this ambitious, but most other news outlets didn’t. Because of this, it was considered a luxurious and over-blown experiment, something that couldn’t be repeated. Others said it was just gimmicky and could be produced using off the shelf tools such as Scroll Kit. One of the most common observations was that whilst lots of people were visiting the story for the spectacle, hardly anyone was actually reading it. 

Despite all this, its impact could not be ignored, and ‘Snow Fall’ became a verb for making stories feel like experiences (“can you Snow Fall it?”). Money was found by publications in hope of having their own Snow Fall moment, and the number of gimmicky, overblown, multimedia stories that people visited but didn’t read grew exponentially. Nearly a decade later, Snow Fall is seen more as a ridiculously ambitious one-off than the future of journalism. But actually, I don’t think that’s true, and this is why I think it’s a format worth unpacking. 

Formats are structures that different stories or experiences can be dropped into. They’re like a set of handrails that makes you feel some sort of control. A comforting familiarity. You know when you’ve got a great format when someone copies it.

Before Snow Fall, multimedia storytelling was a bit of an experimental wild west. There was a lot of creative ambition but not a lot of narrative. Visitors to these stories often found them too abstract to get any sense of what was going on. The UX went far beyond anything users were familiar with, adding a barrier to engaging with the story, rather than enhancing it. There was rarely a beginning, or a middle, or an end. Just an experience that the user felt lost within. Snow Fall changed that. 

A lot of the criticisms of Snow Fall are still valid today, but with the passing of time, it’s hard to ignore it as a turning point or recognise it as being hugely influential. Snow Fall has a clear narrative. It also has a clear navigation. It has six parts that you can jump between easily. There is the familiarity of vertical scrolling and a scrollbar giving you a clue as to how long it will take to read each section. These might sound like obvious features to include in 2021 but you only need to spend a minute or two lost in NFB’s 2012 multi-award winning Bear 71 to understand how important these are for helping to locate your place within a story.

Snow Fall marked the beginning of ‘scrollytelling’ as some of us know it today. It took the wild, sometimes incomprehensible UX experiments of innovative projects like Bear 71, and gave them handrails. It’s created a grammar for interactive storytelling, by corralling many different interactive ideas into a much neater package. Ironically for an interactive story about people getting lost, Snow Fall was a guidebook for others to follow.

The critics will tell you that Snow Fall was not the first to do this, and that it’s far from the best, but because it both captured the imagination of a mass audience and introduced a format for telling multimedia stories I think it deserves another look. It created a template that has influenced interactive storytelling for nearly a decade, so it’s about time we gave it the re-evaluation it deserves.

Favourite episode?

There was only one. 

Similar formats

Pitchfork’s Bat For Lashes story preceded and inspired Snow Fall. Its combination of simplicity and smarts is something that has returned to scrollytelling in recent years. 

But it’s better to look at how the New York Times has folded some of the lessons from Snow Fall into its own multimedia reporting.  The recent article about Three Weeks Inside a Pro-Trump QAnon Chat Room takes a couple of simple interactive ideas, and uses them to powerful effect. Without Snow Fall, this wouldn’t have happened.

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Thanks for reading.

If you have a favourite format you would like to unpack please do get in touch. I’m amazed that no one has wanted to unpack Taskmaster yet - anyone fancy having a go at that. Also, I’d love to see a comic unpacked. Any others you would like to see?

Until next week,

Hugh