Snowfall

Into Thin AirThis New York Times article just won a Pulitzer. Frankly, I’m not one bit surprised it did. Snowfall documents, through a six-part, transmedia tale that incorporates text, images, video interviews, video footage, simulations, and interactive maps, an avalanche that occurred at Tunnel Creek in the US.

Snowfall is exquisite and haunting in terms of both its story and its presentation. It sets, as the New York Times does with just about everything it turns its gaze to, the bar high. In some ways it’s is a big, sweeping tale, charting the history and complexity of an area unstable, prone to unexpected avalanches, and that arguably shouldn’t be skied. In other ways it’s a small story—a tight-knit group of experienced skiers and friends caught in a terrifying mother nature-uncontrollable ordeal.

Either way, the tale is heart-wrenchingly comprehensive. It provides insight into what causes avalanches as well as what it’s like to both be in one and to try to dig your friends out of its aftermath. It’s also an excellent example of transmedia storytelling, using a variety of platforms to execute, complement, and augment a potent story. (It feels like an online, modern version of breathtaking print book Into Thin Air*.)

First impressions of Snowfall are of snowy sparseness, with images simultaneously iconic and eerie. Its text lobs us straight into the action. One of the skiers is tumbling, catapulting in the avalanche, trying to recall her avalanche-survival skills, terrified, stuck, unsure which was is up or down, fearing she’s going to die. It’s pulsating and suffocating at the same time, and there’s no doubt in your mind that this story is going to be emotionally fraught.

‘Like many ideas that sound good at the time, skiing Tunnel Creek was an idea hatched in a bar,’ we read. Fresh, optimal overnight snowfalls make skiing irresistible and a meeting and skiing time is roughly planned.

Naturally occurring avalanches rarely kill, we find out. Human-triggered ones, on the other hand, often do. Every skier who traverses a slope subtly changes the snowpack’s structure. The thin layer of frost buried beneath fresh snow is called the unappetising name of ‘surface hoar’.

The day’s avalanche prediction for Tunnel Creek was the difficult-to-define ‘considerable’. Suffice to say, it was inadvisable to ski there. But the skiers were experienced—many of them were locals—and one even scouted extreme skiing courses worldwide.

The mood setting out was jovial: ‘Get me out of here before another spreadsheet finds me,’ says one skier, having extracted himself from a meeting. Sixteen people set out that day, ‘although no one thought to count at the time’. It was an unusually large number, particularly for that terrain, likened to someone divulging details of a spare keg found at a party. It’s not cool, with no one quite admitting to having told others, but no one is game to uninvite anyone.

Warning signs mark entry to the backcountry ski area: Do you have a beacon, a shovel, and a probe? They’re a reminder that when things go wrong, you’ll be relying on your ski buddies to save you. Each skier is equipped with avalanche beacons, or transceivers, which emit signals for others to locate you if you get buried. But equipment advances, we’re told, make people falsely bold.

‘The start of an avalanche is unlike any other force of nature.’ That is to say that they occur without warning. Three quarters of those killed in an avalanche asphyxiate or suffocate after being buried by the snow.

Reading Snowfall, cyclic and chronological in its telling, is an exercise in inevitability and denial. We know the skiers get caught in the avalanche—the opening paragraphs show us one skier being hurled down the mountain—but we can’t help but hope they make it through unscathed.

Layering the story with video interviews with survivors explaining key moments or their reactions to them, as well as visual elements enabling us to track skiers’ movements instead of imagine them, enhances the story. The skiers’ paths, accompanied by floating headshots and simulations, appear as the story unfolds.

We don’t have to view all of the videos and simulations, but even viewing one or two lends humanising, insightful detail that makes the text-led tale even stronger. Good design that balances sparsity, multiple platforms, layers, and typography can’t be underestimated either. It makes me think this is the future of storytelling—online, incorporating complementary transmedia elements, while recognising the need for good design to supplement a good story.

The one criticism I’ll make of Snowfall is that it concentrates too much on the avalanche and its build-up and not enough on its aftermath. What happens to the skiers who survive once they make it off the mountain? How scarred are they by the incident? Who really knows? The story’s presumably a teaser directing us to watch a documentary created about the event, but that’s where it lost me. I signed on to read the story; I don’t have the time or the inclination to continue on.

That said, as a contained document, Snowfall hints at the far-reaching devastation: ‘Avalanches swallow more lives than just the ones buried beneath the snow’.

*Into Thin Air, which documents one of the worst ever accidents on Mt Everest and which questions the viability of people overestimating experience and underestimating nature.

The great digital newsprint struggle

The book industry has handled the transition to digital with greater intelligence, foresight and strategy than the newspaper business.

In the space of two years (given the Kindle arrived in this market in late 2009 and the iPad and Kobo in May 2010), all major book publishers and many smaller operators have begun to publish ebooks simultaneously with printed titles. Larger book retailers were either already selling ebooks, or moved as quickly as they could to partner with businesses that would allow them to do so. Customers who adopted ereader technology understood from day one that they would need to part with cash to buy ebooks, just as they had physical books.

Newspaper publishers have posted their content online since the mid-90s (making it available to their readers for no charge in most cases), but many are still trying to find a digital model that will make their business sustainable.

Perhaps it’s because newspaper editors are so flat out getting the next day’s edition together, they don’t have time to research, plan, and ponder their likely future, whereas book publishers are used to thinking long term.

Perhaps, like many who are opposed to taking action on climate change, the newspaper bosses see the so-called digital threat as a problem for their successors, and thus one they can ignore or pay lip service to without taking genuine steps towards a sustainable model.

Andrew Rossi’s documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times examines some of these issues, and is a must-see for anyone who is interested in the changing face of the mainstream media. It’s showing in arthouse cinemas in Australia now.

A poster for Page One.
Rossi spent a year in The New York Times newsroom, focusing particularly on the media desk as it covered the dramatic changes affecting the reporters’ own industry.

During that year, the paper’s editors debated how they would cover WikiLeaks’ Afghan war logs, the release of the iPad, the bankruptcy of the Tribune Company (some serious scandals in that one, I’m definitely keen to read more about the workplace culture that filtered through to the LA Times and Chicago Tribune among other papers), NBC Universal’s merger with Comcast, media staff cuts impacting on coverage of the White House and the end of US combat in Iraq.

The film also looks at the Jayson Blair and Judith Miller incidents, the rise of Gawker, Pro Publica and new models for investigative reporting and charging for news online (the Times introduced a metered model of charging regular users of its website during filming).

The lively characters who fill the newsroom and those who commentate on the future of the Times for the cameras provide intriguing side-stories within the larger narrative. Media and culture columnist David Carr, a former crack addict whose 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun, was a New York Times bestseller, is a star of the show.

But it is the newspaper itself that plays the leading role, surviving by adapting to make best use of new tools like Twitter and blogs and (as has been the case in newspapers here) cutting staff.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the future of newspapers. Do you still read them? How often? In print or online? Or via apps for smartphones or tablets?

Do you prefer to read native apps (purpose-built for tablets) or replica versions of the print editions, like those found in the PressReader app?

Or do you find you now read only the occasional newspaper story you’ve found via Twitter, Facebook or other social media platforms?

Would you be prepared to pay by the article, ebook-style, to access quality, well-researched long-form journalism?

Finally, do you think newspapers will even exist in five or ten years?

I’ll write a follow-up post with some of my own thoughts on these questions (as a former online editor of three newspapers, including one that introduced a paywall a decade ago) soon.

Charlotte’s posts on books, digital publishing and social media also appear on Twitter (@ebookish), Facebook (www.facebook.com/ebookish) and at ebookish.com.au.