The 'Snow Fall' Effect Has Arrived at the White House

The Atlantic

If it looked like the White House was taking a (fancy multimedia) page out of the New York Times's digital playbook with its interactive, "Snow Fall"-style new page on gun violence, well, get used to it — the web is proliferating with smooth, graphic-fueled pages, from long-form journalism and beyond. When the Times unveiled its months-in-the-making design for "Snow Fall," John Branch's feature on a deadly avalanche at a Washington state ski resort last month, nobody in the media world was sure whether it could be replicated in a meaningful, moneymaking way. But they were paying attention in Washington, D.C.: The White House website accompanied President Obama's 23 executive actions he announced today with an interactive, citizen-focused microsite, complete with a big, moving image up top, followed by a smooth scroll leading into text peppered with photos, video, and interactive, socialized features. White House Digital Director Macon Philips gave in to the immediate comparisons:

@aschweig @digiphile @nytimes @whitehouse it was amazing ... and inspiring

— Macon Phillips (EOP) (@macon44) January 16, 2013

Since "Snow Fall" captivated millions of readers, and even before, the White House hasn't become the only organization beginning to devote resources to similarly interactive presentations for Big Important Stories. The rise of the "long read," in fact has led many upstart news sites to interrupt essential storytelling with bold photos, videos that help tell the story, and elements that, well, keep you reading the whole story... rather than just scrolling.

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Indeed, just hours before the White House launched its "do something about gun violence" page, The Verge also launched a long, "Snow Fall"-esque feature about ... arcade games. It, too, opens with a big banner image and uses video and photos to pull us inside the tale. The Verge often uses these non-text elements in stories (see here and here), but unlike other pieces on the tech-news site, scrolling from one section to the next carried the same smooth feel as "Snow Fall." Especially once we got to this section: 

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But The Verge's Scott Kellum, who designed the piece, denies that "Snow Fall" had any effect on his work, pointing to a larger movement afoot in digital storytelling. "We weren't influenced at all by the New York Times — we've been writing and designing long-form features like this for over a year, well before anyone else," he told The Atlantic Wire. The Verge's arcade story was ready to go before "Snow Fall" came out, Kellum said. And he claims that the scrolling functionality, called "parallax," first showed up in another Verge story dated December 6, a full two weeks before the Times's avalance piece.

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It's true, "Snow Fall" can't take full credit for this evolution in story telling. BuzzFeed ran a story about the history of Pong last fall as one if its first big pushes into newfound long-form storytelling; in that site's big-money push to expand beyond pictures of cats and pictures of cats with words on them, Buzzfeed hired former Spin editor-in-chief Steve Kandell as perhaps the world's first-ever Longform Editor. Even the Times designers behind "Snow Fall" told The Atlantic Wire that pieces from ESPN and Pitchfork served as inspiration. And SBNation has told long, magazine-quality stories with bonus interruptions that actually aren't interruptions at all.

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So you can call it the end of "bonus features" and the beginning of "truly digital narratives," but one thing's for sure: When the White House is watching, you know some kind of movement is afoot.

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