This weekend's New York Times Sunday magazine hits us, yet again, with another "Snow Fall"-esque multimedia feature. The difference? This time, you may actually want to read the whole thing. Similar highly stylized Times projects, while very pretty, "are bad for the web and bad for readers,"critics have argued, with too many bells and whistles that ultimately overwhelm readers.
"A Game of Shark and Minnow," however, is an evolution in the format, as the Times responds to the backlash to the Snow Fall-ification of the Internet, with better versions of Snow Fall. "I think we’re aware of those criticisms with the other projects and it’s in our heads for sure," Steve Duenes, the Times's associate managing editor, told Fast Company.
"Those criticisms" for Snow Fall-type projects come in two variants: price and utility. Snow Fall required lots of resources: The Times brought in a physicist to recreate the avalanche, for example. Not even the paper of record can afford that level of production on a regular basis. Since the current media business model can't support all that went into Snow Fall, we've seen the more accessible elements of the piece show up in other Times projects (and all over the Internet). Most notably, parallax scrolling, the design element that makes different layers on the page move at different rates. (Fast Company used the feature in this article about unplugging from the Internet.) That trend, however, has started to feel gimmicky as more sites have adopted it.
The Times does more than just parallax, but it has cut down on resources by streamlining its process. "If you’re keeping the eye out for these kinds of projects, you’re noticing they’re coming more frequently," said Duenes. "Not because we’ve tripled the size of the staff, but because we’re realizing some efficiencies." Some of the multimedia features, like this story about gender equity at Harvard Business School, fall into templates. "Sharks and Minnows" didn't, but it borrowed video techniques from a story about NFL kickers. Because of the familiarity with the coding, Sharks and Minnows took about a month to put together—"much faster" than Snow Fall, says Duenes.
Of course, a project like this, which sent a reporter and photographer to a far away land, is still expensive. But that is reporting the magazine would have paid for anyway.
But does the Times need to spend the money for the multimedia experience? These projects risk over-design, leading readers to scroll past the reporting to gawk at looping videos. "The Jockey," another multimedia bonanza, felt that way to Farhad Manjoo over at Slate. Indeed, the narrated videos that peppered the piece interrupted the story. Many people, including Manjoo, have admitted to clicking these stories, but not reading them.
There, Sharks and Minnows, approaches a balance. "On this project there was a better conversation about where readers are going to be served best," said Duenes. The team didn't deliberately reduce visual elements, just thought about how to best use them for the story. Duenes partly credits the magazine's "progressive" editorial staff.
Reading through, it feels tighter. There's a lot of shiny stuff to distract on the page, but none of it fully makes sense without the prose. You have to read the story to get it. Even better: a lot of it—the eerie images of men living on a decrepit boat, the man fashioning an arrow-head—makes you want to read the story. In addition, the videos aren't overly invasive. Instead of a four-minute clip, they have a GIF effect.
Rather than shy away from Snow Fall backlash, the Times team has attempted to make similar projects more accessible both on their end and for the reader. It might not work all the time. But at least for "Sharks and Minnows," it's paying off. People are actually reading the story: