Content Marketing

The Firestorm After the “Snow Fall”

“It took The New York Times hundreds of hours to hand code ‘Snow Fall’ …we made a replica in an hour.” —

By now you might have gotten lost in, glanced at, or at least heard people talking about the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning long-form multimedia report “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek,” launched last November, which used open-source web technologies (custom HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, primarily) to tell a richly layered, jaw-dropping story of man versus nature. The Times’ team opened up to the web community about how it was made, and others have gone on to study its inner workings even further. More recently you might have also noticed a recent post on Medium in which Cody Brown, co-founder of developer tool Scroll Kit, claimed to have replicated the Times’ laborious efforts in a fraction of the time. He demonstrated this in a video that he then removed from YouTube after the Times’ legal department threatened him with a cease-and-desist. Is the Times being a big bully against a small developer or is it justified in protecting its work?

We’re content strategists here, not lawyers, but it’s reasonable to assume that Scroll Kit had used the Times’ content for commercial purposes without permission, which is a violation of the Times’ terms of service. And since Scroll Kit would hope to profit from its demo, that would not be considered fair use. Clearly, instigating a beef with the Times has earned Scroll Kit some attention. What’s less obvious is what hope it offers publishers drawn in by the prospect of dazzling readers with their own record-breaking, buzz-worthy visual content presentations. And questions of where inspiration ends and imitation (or theft) begins are not necessarily cut and dry.

While the Times did set the bar Cascade Mountain–high for jaw-dropping visual narrative content, the media company cannot claim to own just any immersive online storytelling experience that integrates parallax scrolling, 100-percent-width photography, embedded video, slideshows, and interactive data visualizations. The Times can’t even prevent other two-syllable natural disaster stories, as the Guardian’s equally gripping “Firestorm” proves (or other snowy tales of peril, in the case of Outside’s “Lost On Everest”). An idea cannot be copyrighted, but an expression of an idea can. The Times could claim that “Snow Fall” is a unique expression that contains protected content and make the case that its design and code are part of that collective work.

Brown, who studied filmmaking at New York University (and whose Twitter bio states the mission “Trying to make the internets more cinematic”), has said that his goal was not to rip off the New York Times, but to show that article pages can be customized by non-programmers and can achieve similar functionality to what they see in “Snow Fall.” As Brown writes via email, “We’ve created a visual editor that gives you a high level of control over an individual page. The pages you design are then able to be easily integrated into a preexisting site.” When asked how much programming knowledge a Scroll Kit user would need, he replies: “[Zero.] And that’s the point. Engineers are often so much more expensive to hire than designers.”

Not all storytelling is equal.

If “Snow Fall” looks expensive, that’s because it is. Just as the written and visual elements were created by an exceptional team of journalists, an ace team of designers and developers made all those pieces work beautifully together. Results of this kind do not (and should not) come cheap. Brown shared a couple of links to pages developed with Scroll Kit, including a cover story spec for TIME and a Valentine’s Day feature for Thought Catalog, and it’s clear that Scroll Kit is a work in progress. The quality gap at the moment is pretty wide between pages that have been built in Scroll Kit and what the Times has done, so it’s probably unfair to compare them. While both are examples of dynamic web pages that use JavaScript to surprise readers as they scroll, the comparison ends there. The truth is, if someone were to take and use the same code as “Snow Fall” with new assets, it wouldn’t automatically have the same effect. All the choices that go into those surprises for readers — deciding how and in what way each interaction should unfold — are the result of talent and testing.

The conversation would be different had Brown used a client’s or his own content to tell his product story using the Scroll Kit platform (we can hope that’s coming soon). His intention — that the tools for crafting better digital stories should be in the hands of more people — is ultimately good. And he’s not alone: Marquee is another new company working toward a similar end (see the recently relaunched Narratively built on its platform). But just as having access to a video camera won’t instantly make someone a great filmmaker, it will still be up to each storyteller to master their application of these tools. So if learning HTML, CSS, and JavaScript is unfeasible and hiring a programmer too far out of reach, then there’s little risk in trying what these companies can offer.

Whatever you make, though, please don’t call it “Snow Fall.”

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