Snow Fall and A Short History of the Highrise: two approaches to



Snow Fall and A Short History of the Highrise: two approaches to
Textual & Visual Media 7, 2014
Snow Fall and A Short History of the Highrise: two
approaches to interactive communication design by
The New York Times
Pere FreixaCarles Sora
Universitat Pompeu Fabra
Universitat Pompeu Fabra
[[email protected]]
[[email protected]]
Joan Soler-Adillon
Universitat Pompeu Fabra
[[email protected]]
J. Ignasi Ribas
Universitat Pompeu Fabra
[[email protected]]
Received: September 28, 2014
Accepted: December 17, 2014
This paper analyses the discursive characteristics of New York Times’ awarded interactive
features Snow Fall and A Short History of the Highrise. These projects allow us to state the
maturity of two models of interactive discourse which, despite representing two different
approaches, share a series of common features such as the immersive effect. Snow Fall is a
paradigmatic example of the use of parallax scrolling in webdoc design. The video-based
work A Short History of the Highrise represents a remarkable example of an interactive
documentary developed by the NYT and the National Film Board of Canada. The analysis
uses the ‘interactive decoupage,’ a framework developed by the authors for the study of
interactive audiovisual work. This tool was recently presented at the IV Congreso Internacional de la Asociación Española de Investigación de la Comunicación AE-IC 2014 and at the
2014 issue of
Keywords: Interactive feature, interactive design, interactive design, Snow Fall, Highrise, parallax scrolling, interactive documentary, New York Times, webdoc
Contents: 1. Introduction. 2. Analytical Methodology. 3. Decoupage of Snow Fall and
Highrise. 3.1 Module 0: authorship of analysis and relevant aspects for reception. 3.2
Module a: identification data. 3.3.- Module b: description and global assessment by the
analyst . 3.3.1. Synopsis . 3.3.2 Use of the net and transmedia elements. 3.3.3 Dominantes aspects. 3.4. Module c: content. 3.5. Modules d and e: structure and functionality. 3.6. Module f: interface. 3.7. Module g: interaction. 4. Discussion. 4.1 Open
programming vs. applications. 4.2 Narrative content. Sequential structure and automatism. 4.3 Structure navigation. Dissolve and transparency . 4.4 Resource hierarchy and
multimedia treatment. 4.5 Passive vs active user. 5. References.
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1. Introduction
Like all journalism, multimedia needs a strong lead. Put yourself in the shoes of the user. You
have seconds to grab their attention and resist the temptation to hit the close button. The best
work is tightly edited, well paced and engaging throughout
Jassim Ahmad, Reuters Jury Chair of 2014 Multimedia Constest Jury,
World Press Photo Award
At the end of 2013, two events reassure the growing importance of the interactive audiovisual features in online journalism. Both events are related to one label:
The New York Times (NYT), which is arguably one of the most relevant actors
on the research of the discursive possibilities of interactive media within journalism. The first of these events is the Feature Writing Pulitzer Award 2013 for John
Branch’s NYT interactive feature Snow Fall. This is the first time ever that one
of the Pulitzer awards (the Feature Writing) has been awarded to an interactive
piece. The second event is the appearance (and success) of A Short History of the
Highrise (from now on: Highrise). This interactive documentary, created by Katerina Cizek, is a multi-awarded coproduction by the NYT and the National Film
Board of Canada. Most recently, it added the 2014 Multimedia Contest World Press
Photo Award to its merits.
Jassim Ahmad, global head of multimedia innovation at the Reuters media
division, was the president of the committee that awarded the Multimedia Contest prize in the World Press Photo. He reflects on the process of selecting nine
awarded works out of the 373 interactive pieces that were presented. He confirms the different perceptions that result from the convergence of previously
independent professional profiles in interactive media creation, and he proposes
a double typology of journalistic interactive features: «In the Feature categories,
we looked for compelling linear narratives, well told, informative, memorable,
with strong characters at their heart. In the Interactive Documentary category,
we sought projects that use the medium to explain more and bring you closer»
(Ahmad, 2014).
These categorizations are not only necessary in order to classify the growing
number of interactive projects: they also inform us about the relation of these
projects to the preceding journalistic formats from which they inherit some of the
discursive approaches and forms, and to the journalists that have conceptualized
them. Jacobson studied the first forty-seven multimedia productions from the
NYT, created between 2000 and 2007. One of the most remarkable aspects on
these initial productions is the absence of the narrative qualities that are typical of
hypertext: «The reasons for this may include McLuhan’s notion that the first content for a new medium is an older medium, meaning that because we are still in
the earliest stages of journalism on the Web the news creators are producing the
kinds of stories they are most familiar with» (Jacobson, 2010: 74). Currently, the
NYT uses the generic label interactive storytelling in order to group the sub-categories of multimedia stories, data visualization, explanatory graphics, breaking news
Snow Fall and A Short History of the Highrise: two approaches... T & VM 7, 2014 [65]
and visual and interactive features (The New York Times: 2013). Each of the names
of these categories offers a much more clear linkage to the particular department
within the newspaper structure that is in charge of creating it —graphics, newsroom, video and featured content respectively— than the newness or singularity
of each of the proposals in terms of multimedia and interactive dimensions.
The different terminology used in classifying interactive audiovisual works is
a proof of both the convergence of different traditional media practices and the
newness of the approach. Terms such as interactive documentary, interactive feature, webdoc, i-doc, interactive storytelling, etc. coexist, sometimes interchangeably, in the description of these types of work. According to Domínguez (2013:
84): «The webdoc is regarded both as a genre within the traditional audiovisual
documentary and as a common ground for practitioners and approaches taken
from different backgrounds (…) Time will tell is this neologism remains in use
or if it is substituted by a new label that stresses the differences between what has
been done until now and what is yet to come.»
In the Online Journalism Awards [] the terminological issue is resolved by bypassing the differentiation between interactive and non
interactive. There are interactive pieces in almost all the award categories, which
follow the traditional categorization of journalistic work: Breaking News, Feature,
Explanatory Reporting, Topical Reporting, etc. The innovation in terms of multimedia and interactivity are taken for granted as a common feature of online journalism: «Over the past decade, the OJAs have recognized major media, international
and independent sites and individuals producing innovative work in multimedia
storytelling» (Online Journalism Awards, 2014). This is perhaps the first proof that
the interactive works in online journalism are finding its place in online media.
The spectacular success of Highrise and Snow Fall, both in awards and in visitors (Sullivan, 2012) suggests that the interactive audiovisual work is already a
normalized type of online journalistic media. To the debate of the forms, frameworks, costs and meaning of what these two proposals bring about (Aston y
Gaudenzi, 2012; Greenfield, 2012; Lacy, 2012; Thompson, 2012; McAdams,
2013; Nash, 2014; Rodríguez y Molpeceres, 2014), this paper adds the results
obtained through the analysis that was performed with the analytical tool ‘interactive decoupage’ developed by the Interactive Communication section of the
DigiDoc Reseach group in Universitat Pompeu Fabra []
(Freixa, 2009; Freixa, Soler-Adillon, Sora and Ribas, 2014). The detailed analysis
of these two interactive features allows us to point out the similarities and singularities in the solutions that both projects propose in terms of content, information structure, user engagement and interface design. The prevailing textuality
of Snow Fall and the importance of videography in Highrise distinguish these
two projects that, because of their relevance, are arguably becoming models of
interactive audiovisual pieces in online journalism. The fact that both of them
are produced by the NYT, which holds an undeniable leadership in this type of
projects, offers an a-priori proof of quality and the possibility of a desirable degree
of homogeneity. At the same time, the fact that the NYT, as discussed below,
classifies them into two distinct categories, counterbalances this with a degree of
variability that is interesting in terms of the comparative analysis.
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2. Analytical Methodology
The ‘decoupage’ places the focus of interest on the creative process and the
definition of the messages; on the rhetorical aspects of interactive communication. The use of this tool in the analysis of the studied works allows for a detailed
observation of the parts that constitute them, in a path that goes from the global
and generic to the particular; to the significant fragment. The description of these
constitutive elements (content, structure, interfaces and interaction) allow for a
sort of restitution of the very same interactive piece, and is similar to what could
have been the script and guidelines used for its creation. Thus, the result of the
analysis provides the investigator with documentation on the creative and design
process of the interactive work’s authors. It does not recreate the work phases,
but it allows the observer to formulate questions about the decisions made in
generating a particular formalization and concretion of the piece. Confronting
the resulting document of the ‘decoupage’ and the analyzed piece stimulates the
discussion on the distinct discursive possibilities that the medium offers on creating and reading messages in interactive online works; on the creative process.
The ‘interactive decoupage’ tool is divided in a series of modules:
1. Module 0: authorship of analysis and relevant aspects for reception
2. Module a: identification data
3. Module b: description and global assessment by the analyst
4. Module c: content
5. Module d y e: structure and functions
6. Module f: interface
7. Module g: interactivity
Each of the modules contains a series of indicators to what is the analyst
intends to observe on each phase of the process. It is assumed that, according to
the particular interests of an analyst, some indicators may be ignored or modified for a particular iteration of the process. The ‘decoupage’ tool is used as a
guideline for the reading of the interactive pieces that are here studied; as a
structure to organize the observation and to confront both works in an integrated discourse.
3. Decoupage of Snow Fall and Highrise
The actual raw document that the decoupage of a piece like Snow Fall or Highrise produces can be very large (30 pages approximately). Consequently this
section summarizes the most relevant aspects of both analysis, maintaining the
framework’s module structure.
3.1. Module 0: authorship of analysis and relevant aspects for reception
The analysis of Highrise was made with a Mac book air on OS 10.9.1 (Mavericks).
For Snow Fall, a PC with Windows XP was used. In both cases this was done with
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the Chrome browser, with versions 33.0.1750.152 y 34.0.1847.137m, respectively. The analysis was performed in the months of April and May, 2014.
3.2. Module a: identification data
Both projects have been programmed with HTML5 and JavaScript. They are
both adapted to browsers that do not support the latest versions of these languages (Internet Explorer 7, 8 y 9) and for users that don’t have the latest JavaScript libraries installed in their systems. In the <head> tag of the main html file
of Highrise, the following tags are contained: first, the <description> reads as
follows: «Watch a four-part interactive documentary about the fascinating past,
present and future of high-rise living in cities around the world»; the <keywords>
tag contains «Op-Docs, documentary, high-rise, architecture, public housing»; in
the <1p> tag it is stated «‘A Short History of the Highrise’ is an interactive documentary that explores the 2,500-year global history of vertical living and issues
of social equality in an increasingly urbanized world»; finally, the internal NYT
tags that classify the category, type of content, media and public of Highrise are
«opinion», «multimedia», «interactive» and «normal».
In the case of Snow Fall, the <head> tag contains the following: the <description> reads «‘Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek,’ by New York Times
reporter John Branch, tells the harrowing story of skiers caught in an avalanche»;
in <og:description> there appears the text «Fresh powder beckoned 16 expert
skiers and snowboarders into the backcountry. Then the snow gave way»; there is
no information in the <keywords> tag; finally, «Multimedia», «Multimedia Feature», »Interactive Feature», «Interactive» and «Sports» are the NYT internal tags
that classify the work in terms of category, type of content and media.
Outside of the HTML code, Snow Fall offers information on the production
credits and a short description of the last chapter of the work, which offers a
closure to it. Highrise incorporates two options in the menu [menu/about] and
[menú/credits] that offer further information. However, there is no complementary or contextual information on these two pieces in the NYT main website.
They are only accessible through the search form. Both projects are presented
only in the English language.
3.3. Module b: description and global assessment by the analyst
3.3.1. Synopsis
Highrise is an interactive documentary about vertical construction of housing
throughout history. It is structured around a lineal video that is divided in three
episodes. These episodes constitute the actual documentary, which has the addition of a fourth chapter with contributions by the readers of the NYT. Each of
the four videos is subdivided in a series of sections. In turn, each of the sections is
constituted by between one and five images that the user can navigate. By doing
so, the narration of the video and the video itself are stopped, only to be resumed
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once the navigation trough the still images ends. Most of these images are photographic images, while a few contain some internal animation or some interactive
elements. All of them serve the purpose of offering additional information to
the main documentary video, either by expanding the discourse of by allowing
a better visualization of some of the elements that appear in it. These parallel
materials are interesting and are in fact a fundamental part of the documentary.
However, they do force the user to stop the main discourse (either in the first or
a latter view) since there is no alternative way to access these materials (i.e. they
can only be accessed through the chapter/section structure of the main documentary). The fourth chapter (the additional materials from the NYT readers) does
seem to be less indispensable in constructing the overall discourse; one can have
a good experience with the documentary while completely ignoring this last part.
Snow fall is a long interactive feature about the experience of 16 skiers that
were trapped by a snow avalanche at the US Cascade Mountains. The piece is
formed by six chapters, each of which structured around a long text that occupies
several times the width of a regular computer or tablet screen space. Throughout
the text, a series of animated photographs, interview videos and 3D animations
are presented. It is surprising how these multimedia elements merge with the
background images, and how the videos and animations automatically activate as
they reach the center of the screen. The overall effect is the perception that, as one
reads on, the piece offers the audiovisual elements to the reader as a complement
of the textual content, and this adds a degree of dramatism to the experience.
The text situates the reader in regards to the experience and its main characters.
In some passages, it reads like a transcription of their feelings and mental states
during the experience. The audio of the video pieces helps the user in experiencing a direct dialog with the protagonists.
The navigation of Snow Fall is based on the movements of the browser’s scrollbar. This tool vertebrates the navigation and the progression of the different media
that constitute the piece: pictures, animated infographics, text and video. In order
to do so, the effect known as parallax scrolling is used. The parallax scrolling,
widely used in the organization of extensive websites (Frederick, 2013), allows
the authors to organize the content of a particular node in different elements (see
figure 4) that activate, move and win or lose importance (and opacity) as the user
interacts with them or bypasses them with the scrollbar.
In parallel, a menu situated on the upper part of the screen offers direct access
to the six chapters that constitute the interactive feature, and to the rest of the
menu option. It is surprising that the menu does not offer access to a credits page,
nor to any other complementary information such as image galleries, archive or
alternative access to the piece.
3.3.2. Use of the net and transmedia elements
Both projects take into account the bidirectional nature of the net and incorporate sections that require the collaboration of users and offer the possibility to
share content in social networks. However, in the case of Highrise the participation
of users goes beyond the mere commentary or external opinion to the journalistic
Snow Fall and A Short History of the Highrise: two approaches... T & VM 7, 2014 [69]
information presented. In it, the contributions are incorporated in the discourse:
the fourth chapter of the documentary is created entirely with the photographic
contributions of the readers. In addition, a complementary gallery of further user
contributions is presented, with 186 contributions added at the date of this paper’s
writing [].
On the other hand, Snow Fall is conceived as a closed product, entirely elaborated and finalized at the moment of its public release. It is, from this point of view,
a unidirectional journalistic exercise. In order to make use of the potential of the
net, the NYT created two parallel activities: the first is a section that contains reader
opinions, some of them commented by the main documentary writer John Branch
html]; the second consisted in incorporating the feature in The Learning Network,
the pedagogy-oriented section of the NYT’s website [http://learning.blogs.nytimes.
3.3.3. Dominantes aspects
In the case of Snow Fall, the feeling of adaptation of the piece to the reading
rhythm of the user is quite a remarkable trait. Despite being based on a long
linear text that is structured in six chapters and has only a few interactive items,
the distribution of the multimedia content along the narrative line affords new
complementary layers in the reading of the piece. The automatisms in the activation and bringing forward of particular multimedia resources produces a sense of
immersion that facilitates the forgetfulness of the discontinuities among the different media.
One of the most interesting features in Hihgrise is the combination of the short
video segments in which each of the chapters of the documentary is subdivided
with the additional materials that the user can access as the video plays on. The
appearance of continuity among the different materials is achieved through the
use of animation and infographics, both in the videos and in the multimedia
additional material. While in Snow Fall text is the dominant material, in Hihgrise
animation and audio are the main driving forces of the experience.
3.4. Module c: content
As said, the central media element in Snow Fall is text. The piece is written
in short paragraphs with which the author becomes the narrator of a story. The
language is precise and clear, with short descriptions and a preference for dialog.
It is in fact the inclusion of a substantial quantity of dialogues what generates to
the reader the feeling of listening to the story directly from those implied. All of
this offers elements of suspense and narrative tension. On the other hand, the
text included in the animations offers a much more neutral (technical) tone. The
whole text is about 18 thousand words; roughly, the equivalent to 40 pages of a
regularly sized book.
The video is the driving force of Highrise. The whole project is built around the
main video, which is presented at full-screen. This video is the container of the
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rest of the multimedia material: photographs, infographics, animation, text and
audio are presented in video format. In fact, there is no sequence or fragment
in Highrise that actually comes from a videographic or cinematographic source.
Therefore, even though the descriptor ‘video’ is used to describe the guiding line
of the documentary, we shall understand this descriptor as inclusive of these
still image source materials. Many of these materials are formed by the work of
some well-know photographers (Jackob Riss, Lewis Hine, etc.) and the animated
graphic materials that provide the social importance of the piece: the documentation on the inhabitants of the city and the vertical urban space. The videographic
container allows for the incorporation of a temporal rhythm, audio and narration
to this material, which in turn affords user control.
—Highrise offers some interactive activities within its complementary materials. These activities can be classified as follows:
This typology appears only once, in the first section of the first chapter. It consists of an element that moves slightly as to indicate to the user that it can be
clicked. When he or she does that, an additional text appears on the screen.
This is the most used interactive pattern. The interaction is articulated around
the dragging action with a graphic hand appearing as pointing to the direction
of the possible dragging action. This follows the metaphor of the children’s
books that have hidden elements in cardboard pages that the child can drag
off to discover. One the user clicks and drags on the hand, the hidden element
becomes visible.
—Drag & Drop
It is used only once in the sub-section ‘small’ of the third chapter. It is a minigame in which the user is invited to arrange the furniture of a 10 square-feed
—Clicking Game
It appears in the subsection ‘ideology,’ in chapter 2. It is another min-game in
which the user follows a crane that moves from left to right in a urban space
fill with constructed buildings. As it moves sideways, the user can click on the
empty (yet-to-be-build-on) spaces and new buildings will appear on them. At
the end, the overall result is presented to the user.
It appears in the subsection ‘vilified,’ in chapter 2. There, a bar can be used to
alternate among 5 pictures that start with a group of neighbors in a common
space and end with the demolition of a building.
3.5. Modules d and e: structure and functionality
Both of the analyzed projects consist of a clearly lineal structure. No alternative
navigating options (such as galleries categorized by genre, media type, etc.) are offered.
Both features have a preliminary node that precedes the activation of the
navigation options, although they do so in different ways. In Highrise the cin-
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Figure 1. Main structure of Snow Fall.
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Figure 2. Main structure of Highrise and subsection structure for chapter 2.
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Figure 3. Interfaces of the initial node and chapter 1 in Snow Fall.
ematographic metaphor is used to activate automatically the jump from the
preliminary stage to part 1, Mud, in a fade in/out transition that affords a great
feeling of continuity (see figure 2, link of «initial credits» and «part 1: Mud»).
On the initially black screen, an image of Central Park appears along with the
title of the piece. The transition to the next node is used to present on the screen
the navigational elements and the text-based help and to get the audio and the
video started. If the user remains passive, the piece will move on linking automatically and sequentially segment after segment, chapter after chapter. This
means that with only one single (and simple) interaction, the initial click to load
Highrise on the browser, one can view the whole main line of material that is
formed by the four chapters.
The approach of Snow Fall is different. Here the preliminary node situates the
spectator in a static screen in which he or she has to act upon in order for the feature to move on. This first node presents the background, the title and the text that
continues to the lower part of the screen. In the menu area only the option of going
back to the main NYT page and of social sharing are activated. When the sliding
bar moves in order to read on, the transition to chapter one occurs. With the movement of the scrollbar a fade in/out effect of the elements of the node is activated,
and this moment is also used to situate the whole menu on the screen. In this case,
the bar will allow the user to move along all the nodes of one chapter, although the
transition from chapter to chapter, or to the multimedia additional materials, will
have to be activated with a click.
3.6. Module f: interface
In Snow Fall, the interface design and the transitions between nodes and node
components stress the visual continuity of the piece. The content fills the screen,
with only a subtle menu on the upper part. There is no direct access to the complementary content such as the picture gallery or interviews. Along the experience,
two simultaneous ways to access the documentary’s complementary content are
presented: first, a thumbnail of an image can be used as a link to a photographic
gallery; second, a text is used as a link to some additional material (see figure 4).
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Figure 4. Chapter 1 fragment in Snow Fall. Detail of
navigation interface.
As seen in figure 5, in each
of the chapters of the piece
the distribution of the content is done by fairly standard
procedures, such as the use of
a big image and text on the
header. The distribution of
the content does vary from
chapter to chapter: in the first
three, the text is juxtaposed
to image galleries of the main
characters of the story. In the
last three audio files are used.
In the third chapter, as the
story tells us about the avalanche, the scrollbar controls
the activation of the interactive infography and the access
to the image galleries.
During the viewing of each
chapter in Highrise, three parts
of the interface stand out:
the main menu, to navigate
among chapters or through
the contributed materials or
credits; the navigation bar,
which situates the user on the
corresponding subdivision of
the piece within each chapter and shows the availability
of additional materials; and
finally the audio and video
controls (see figure 6).
If a user action is required
during the complementary
viewing, the indication of
this is presented as integrated
in the interface. No galleries
or external complements are
activated. Mostly, this content
is formed by photographic
materials with an audio. On
the screen, the image is shown
with a button labeled ‘See
back’ that affords the access to
the reverse of the virtual post-
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Figura 5. Interfaces of the six chapters of Snow Fall.
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Figure 6.
Two screenshots
show Highrise’s
navigation interface
during the viewing of
chapter 3, Glass.
Figure 7.
two screenshots
show Highrise’s
navigation interface
during the viewing
of complementary
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Figure 8: Different versions of the main menu depending on the section: ‘introduction’, ‘chapter 1’, ‘final video’ and ‘comments’.
Figura 10: menú principal de Highrise en opciones normal, rollover y desplegado.
card. This reverse shows the complementary information for the particular image:
authorship, title, story, etc. In all cases the main menu and the audio control are
visible at the left of the image. Only the video control and the main navigation
bar fade out and are substituted by a previous/next option and a ‘return to video’
3.7. Module g: interaction
The main interactive mode in Snow
Fall is the scrollbar. It activates the transitions, triggers the rollover in the videos
and allows the long texts to be read. It also
contains a main menu with links. Besides
the scrollbar control, the interactivity is
reduced to video and infographics control (play, pause, reload) and mouse click
to access the different sections. (Figure 8
and 9).
Highrise uses text areas as contextual
help for menu rollovers and to indicate any new option that has not yet
been used. The control and navigation
bar (figure 10) is used to visualize the
advance of the video within a chapter
and of each subchapter. Ath the same
time, it can be clicked to move from one
subchapter to another. When a subchapter is active, the corresponding number
of additional content is visualized. As a
complement to the bar, audio and video
controls are shown.
Figure 9. Main menu in Highrise in
normal, rollover and deployed options.
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4. Discussion
This concluding section points out the most relevant aspects that emerged
during the analysis of the two proposed interactive works with the decoupage
tool, and puts them in discussions with what the authors of the works and their
critics have highlighted in commenting on them.
4.1. Open programming vs. applications
Both works can be seen by visiting web pages that are hosted in the NYT
servers. They are programmed exclusively with public domain programming languages, such as HTML5 and JavaScript. They use different libraries to generate
the access to the interactive and multimedia resources. Despite the fact that both
projects are well adapted to different browsers and operating systems, both projects are part of a strategy of creating general-purpose projects instead of specific
applications (apps) for each type of device and operating system.
According to Snow Fall designer Jacky Myint, «from the beginning we made
the decision to not offer the exact same experience across all browsers/devices.
This allowed me to focus on the main experience in the more modern web browsers while my colleagues focused on different experiences on other devices or older
browsers» (Duenes et al., 2013). When the piece detects what device the user is
viewing it with, it may activate or not certain aspects of it in order to facilitate its
view. Myint adds: «Josh Williams worked on the iPad/iPhone/touch experience
while Jon Huang worked on IE8. We each had to figure out the best experience
for the respective browsers/devices we were focusing on and work within their
limitations» (Duenes et al., 2013).
This decision is not new. In the last several years, the NYT has made a strong
and consistent effort towards the use of state-of-the-art HTML-based programming. Many of the resources used in Snow Fall and Highrise have been developed
during the last two years. As graphic designer Steve Duenes states, «the front end
coding is not much of a leap beyond other interactive features that we have done
in the last two years. It’s similar in some ways to some of the devices that have
been used on a smaller scale: fixing elements on the page, for example. But the
way that it was coded —to try to create this so it wasn’t a heavy experience for a
reader— that was ambitious for sure» (Greenfield, 2012).
The adaptability of the different devices and operating systems has also been a
preoccupation in the design of Highrise. According to the piece’s author Katerina
Cizek, «The interactive experience incorporates the films and, like a visual accordion, allows viewers to dig deeper into the project’s themes with additional archival materials, text and microgames. On tablets, viewers can navigate the story
extras and special features within the films using touch commands like swipe,
pinch, pull and tap. On desktop and laptop computers, users can mouse over
features and click to navigate. Smartphone users can view the four films via the
New York Times Mobile Web site» (Highrise NFB, 2013)
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4.2. Narrative content. Sequential structure and automatism
As it has been said in section 3.5, the underlying structure of both the Snow
Fall and Hihgrise correspond to a model of sequential linearity. The nodes are
linked in an orderly manner; one after the other in a continuous path. Both
products present a simple structure with only two levels; main structure and brief
digressions in the form of complementary content. No alternative access points
to the pieces’ materials are offered, such as galleries or parallel structures or links
(i.e. the only way to see the material is in the form presented as the main access).
Neither are there links among sections, subsections and content. In fact, these
structures depart from the traditional recommendations of text-book interactive
design, such as facilitating direct access to content, offering the possibility to
reiterate in the interactive forms, etc. (Garet, 2010) or avoid long sections of
content: «users are likely to traverse your site in a free-form web like manner,
jumping across regions in the information architecture, just as they would skip
through chapters in a reference book» (Lynch, Horton, 2009: 84). The NYT
team, instead, has chosen to simplify and reduce the presence of navigation structure along the interface. In Highrise¸ added to the linearity and simplification of
the structure are the automatism of the system’s answers: the initial click allows
for a full view of the four video pieces that constitute the documentary. In Snow
Fall the structure is reminiscent of the continuity of the writing text. As noted by
Steve Duenes (2013), «Snow Fall began life not as a demonstration of technology
and design capabilities, but with a traditional, in-depth piece by Times reporter
John Branch».
4.3. Structure navigation. Dissolve and transparency
As mentioned above, the content is structured through a simple scheme:
sequential linearity. This is reinforced and complemented with decision of modifying the usual dimension of the nodes and presenting both the main interface
elements and those that are complementary in the same interface. With this, the
interface and navigation design complement each other and afford a sense of narrative continuity to the user. This is an often sought effect in the design of interactive audiovisual pieces. Nodes, chapters, sections, etc. are not clearly separated.
One moves from one to the next in an uninterrupted fashion, by sliding down
the scrollbar or though the transitions and the automatic dissolves, in a seamless manner, as the user is focused on some other element on the screen. With
this, the discourse appears without interruptions, even though the user might
momentarily abandon the main narrative trail to wander about the complementary materials. According to editor Margaret Sullivan (2012) Snow Fall is capable
of maintaining the attention of the users significantly, since, as she states, «they
spent a lot of time with the project, about 12 minutes, which amounts to eons
for a single digital story.» Many details go along this decision: the main menu
in Snow Fall appears on the screen when the users activates the scrollbar and is
observing another part of the screen. In Highrise there is a continuous transition
from ‘initial credits’ to ‘part 1’, using the background sound and the visual ani-
[80] Textual & Visual Media 7, 2014
Freixa; Soler-Adillon; Sora; Ribas
mation as a focus of attention. John Brach, writer of Snow Fall, describes the goal
of the piece as follows: «You have to hope the story carries the reader, (…) We’re
setting breadcrumbs along the way in terms of graphic and photos. You just have
to hope that people follow.» (Jula, 2014).
4.4. Resource hierarchy and multimedia treatment
As noted by John Branch in referring to Snow Fall, the text is higher in importance than any graphic resource or photograph. In Highrise video is the prominent media, although as discussed above it is more a media container than an
actual videographic document. The audio is the media upon which the continuity of the piece is built, while photography and graphics provide visual richness.
The NYT classifies its interactive works in five categories: multimedia stories, data
visualization, explanatory graphics, breaking news and visual and interactive features. Despite the fact that they can share the same programming techniques,
narrative structures or graphic resources for interface design, each category refers
to the traditional journalistic practice it is related to. Multimedia stories contains
piece that, like Snow Fall, are built around a story, a textual argument. In visual
and interactive features the pieces with a strong visual and audiovisual component,
mostly video and photography (such as Highrise) are found. The Jassim Ahmad
quote at the beginning of the paper points to the existence of two models of
interactive pieces; a more traditional, text-based one, and second that privileges
the audiovisual and multimedia experience.
4.5. Passive vs active user
What kind of user is interested in these type of projects? Margaret Sullivan states
that, out of the almost three million visitors to Snow Fall on its first week of existence, a third had never before accessed the NYT website (Sullivan, 2012). These
are, therefore, new users, possibly attracted by social media posted links. Users
can interact with Snow Fall like they would with an electronic book, or can watch
Highrise as they would watch a Youtube video. However, both projects afford other
navigation and participation possibilities. From less to more user implication, each
project offers different degrees of engagement to the users. From a passive reception reminiscent of traditional media to active creation and posting of content, in
the case of Highrise, or engaging in a dialog with the writer of the piece in Snow
Fall. This diversity in the possibilities of use is probably one of the best achievements of the NYT proposals. Jess Linington (2013) comments on the duality of
users in Highrise: «Reading through the user comments (a goldmine for those
interested in user experience) so far on the NYTimes site, it’s clear to see an imbalance between those who embraced the interactivity and those who didn’t, which
is to be expected with any mainstream interactive project. However the biggest
talking point so far is the use of rhyme within the piece. Intended to ‘evoke a storybook’ many thought it didn’t fit, or ‘dumbed down’ the overall tone».
Snow Fall and A Short History of the Highrise: two approaches... T & VM 7, 2014 [81]
Final Note
This work is part of the Project «Active Audiences and Journalism. Interactivity, Web Integration and Findability of Journalistic Information». CSO201239518-C04-02. National Plan for R+D+i, Spanish Ministry of Economy and
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