Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism hosted a daylong Future of Digital Longform conference recently, and it was full of good stuff. (They kindly invited Storyboard to appear on a panel, and although we couldn’t make it, we spoke with conference organizer and The Big Roundtable publisher Anna Hiatt; you can read the conversation here.) Our three-part recap of the conference begins today. Check back Thursday for Part 2, and Friday for Part 3.

The Breakthrough: The lessons of “Snow Fall”

You might be one of those journalists who’s weary of conversations about the New York Times‘ Pulitzer- and Emmy-winning multimedia narrative “Snow Fall,” but the chat between the Tow Center’s Emily Bell and the project editor, Joe Sexton, now of ProPublica, is worth a look.

After Bell covered the context — the project as a “revolutionary break in format;” “Snow Fall” as verb — they discussed the challenge of the narrative reconstruct (at the 7:45 mark); and the project’s overall influence on narrative journalism (20:08). “I do think it’s a fair question, going forward: What warrants all of this firepower? How often can you do it and on what kinds of stories?” Sexton said. “It seems a reasonable question to ask yourself throughout (a project): Is there real utility to what you’re doing, in addition to wanting to wow people and make things memorable?”

Bell, who teaches at Columbia, mentioned having confessed, to her students, that she was undecided about “Snow Fall.” She said, “And one of the students said something that really made me stop and think. He said, ‘Yeah, but I like this because as a journalist, you like the theatrical. You want to feel that something you can do sort of has grand scale.’ Part of how we perform journalism is interesting, because we’ve always signaled how important a story is by what we put on the page. Is it front page? Is it Page 11?” The big multimedia treatment “is definitely a way of signaling.” (20:32)

You can watch the full conversation here (1 hour, 10 minutes).  We liked that Sexton started the discussion with an acknowledgment of the fundamental power of storytelling, and language:

“When I was a young, aspiring sportswriter, the first boss I ever fell in love with was a guy named David Tucker, who was then the sports editor of United Press International, and I was a clerk on the sports desk there. … David was a great classic journalistic hero: bushy-haired and cigar-smoking and profane, and in love with breaking stories and in love with language. So for a 24-year-old kid, I fell in love with him. It turns out that he ended up being a very accomplished poet and he’s won a bunch of awards as he’s gone on to a career at the Philadelphia Inquirer and now at the Newark Star-Ledger. He wrote a book of poems about sort of life in the newsroom. I’m gonna read one because it speaks a little bit as to how ‘Snow Fall’ got started.” He read “City Editor Looking for News” in full. Here’s the opening:

What did Nick the Crumb say before he died? What noise
did his fist make when he begged Little Pete Narcosi
not to whack him with a power saw? Did it go thub like a biscuit
against a wall or sklack like a seashell cracking open?
Did he say his mother’s name? Has anybody even talked
To his friggin’ mother? Is she broke or sick and abandoned?
Is she dying of a broken heart? Do I have to think
of these things all by myself? How about a story
on which female commissioner the mayor is screwing?
How do we get that? Or what about the rumor
that he’s taking bribes off the gay architect from Parsipanny?
Write me something about the bums
living under the bridge at 2nd and Callowhill …


—Sexton, talking multimedia narrative, at the Nieman Foundation’s 75th anniversary festivities, last September.

—This piece on journalism and poetry from the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture, a project of USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism.

—”Better Writing through Poetry + Metaphor,” from the Storyboard archive.

—Also from the Storyboard archive: “Poetry as narrative journalism? You’d be surprised.”

The Data: How we read

Josh Schwartz, the lead data scientist at Chartbeat, an analytical service that works with more than 4,000 publishers worldwide, spent 10 minutes talking about how readers read, and whether they’re turned off by longform. Longform has been around “forever,” he pointed out, drawing out two definitions of the word, as he sees it: long, text-based magazines pieces, and this “new brand of interactive journalism — your ‘Snow Falls’ of the world.”

A highlight: Schwartz referred to a recent Medium post that suggested the “optimal” post as a seven-minute read, but says the truth is “more nuanced than that.” Studies on interactive longform show a “completely different story.” Interactive pieces average five times the reader engagement of a normal article, he said, and more than double the engagement of other longform content.

Watch the vid below, and stick around for the “Longform’s Longtail” session that follows, with Schwartz plus Matt Bean, editor of Sports Illustrated digital; Max Linsky, founder of; and Erika Hayasaki, an author and former Los Angeles Times reporter who now teaches at the University of California Irvine.

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