NYT creates a throwback -- in a good way

The New York Times has been getting a lot of net.love for its beautiful project Snow Fall:
The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.

Forbes called it the "first of many" online news storytelling experiments. It's not. It's actually a welcome throwback to things that were attempted at the dawn of the Internet era, in the mid-1990s.

That was a time before automated content management systems and business imperatives mandated standards and templates and, notably missing from the NYT presentation, advertising to pay for it all.

In those days the few of us experimenting with online storytelling were poor in tools but rich in freedom to experiment. Some that I remember from the early days of Star Tribune Online: A virtual drive up Hwy. 61 on the North Shore of Lake Superior, produced by Rocky Agrawal. A visual tour of St. Paul's Como Park Conservatory, produced by Robyn Dochterman.

And Testing the Human Spirit, a huge, powerful, emotional multimedia tear-jerker about how AIDS devastated a Minnesota family. It was produced by Jackie Crosby, designed by Jamie Hutt, featuring photos by Brian Peterson and text by Kimberly Hayes Taylor, with editing by Ben Welter and audio work by Will Outlaw.

Not as big as the crew producing the Times project, but quite an investment for the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune.

The AIDS project is still online -- sort of. I won't link to it, as it's badly broken. Sadly, the images are missing and probably most of the other media assets as well, victims of time and bitrot and many system upgrades and migrations.

Most of us quit doing this sort of thing not because of a lack of enthusiasm but because of a lack of resources, especially time. Business realities haven't just decimated newspaper staffs; they've decimated online crews as well.

And projects these days require business justifications. "Strengthening the brand" can be one, but throwing a dozen designers and producers and coders at one story isn't something you can do very often, even if you're the New York Times.

If you haven't spent some time looking at Snow Fall, I strongly encourage you to do so. There's a lot to be learned and I look forward to some of its storytelling devices being more widely used.

Just don't go thinking we're going to pull all the advertising off our pages and hand-code projects as a routine part of production. Can't do it.


Steve... I spent more than an hour reading/listening/watching the NyTimes Snow Fall story yesterday. I encountered many ads within the story content. They were embedded in a screen-wide gray bar, and very noticeable, but not offensive or distracting. I was very impressed by the use of the available tools, and liked that the 10-min+ video was the last thing presented. It worked as a way to help digest the incredible story I had just experienced. I don't think the package would have been nearly as powerful had the video been presented front-and-center. As part of a documentary team at Capital Public Radio, I am always on the lookout for great storytelling. The bar set very high with this story. The NYTimes got it right.

The Star Tribune's AIDS package was an inspiration for at least one person leaving a newsroom and heading off to launch an online operation in that era. It's sad to think it has been allowed to molder. Someone -- the Star Tribune or at least one of the project creators -- should step up and preserve it.