Building a “Snow Fall” Builder

We are focused on building tools to create Snow Falls everyday, and getting them as close to reporters as possible. I’d rather have a Snow Fall builder than a Snow Fall.


The quote above is from the leaked New York Times innovation report, as summarized on the Nieman Journalism Lab blog. The full paragraph from the summary sheds a bit more light on it…


The Times’ dialect quiz was the most popular piece of content in the paper’s history with more than 21 million pageviews — but projects like that and Snow Fall are not easily replicable. “We have a tendency to pour resources into big one-time projects and work through the one-time fixes needed to create them and overlook the less glamorous work of creating tools, templates and permanent fixes that cumulatively can have a bigger impact by saving our digital journalists time and elevating the whole report. We greatly undervalue replicability.” They point out that competitors like Vox and BuzzFeed view innovating with their platforms as a key function and allow them to create products like BuzzFeed’s quizzes — incredibly popular, but also easy to create over and over again. “We are focused on building tools to create Snow Falls everyday, and getting them as close to reporters as possible,” said Quartz editor Kevin Delaney. “I’d rather have a Snow Fall builder than a Snow Fall.” (p. 36 in the report)


I tend to not work on big “one-time projects” with our clients because I feel their budgets are better spent on creating platforms that allow for publishing any number of different types of content over an extended period of time. Some agencies may see this as “the less glamorous work of creating tools, templates and permanent fixes” but I think this is the most glamorous work. It involves equal measures of content strategy, user experience, design, and development to imagine and create tools like this. Microsites are easy. One-offs usually don’t live for multiple months, let alone multiple years, with a team constantly publishing content.

Building a replicable, flexible “Snow Fall” publishing system is more complex than building a static, inflexible, never-touch-the-code-again one-off Snow Fall. Do I feel a responsibility to build sustainable interactive solutions instead of adding to the “disposable internet landfill” of temporary online campaigns? Isn’t evolving an existing publishing system a better use of everyone’s time than scrapping it and rebuilding every time you want to make a change, or even worse, having no publishing system in place? Am I just a glutton for the more demanding challenges of building platforms?

Well, of course. That’s why I’ve done these things for Travel Oregon, Pinehurst Resort, and The North Face (among many other projects).

The report looks to be a must-read for anyone in the content publishing industry, and I’m looking forward to getting more familiar with the full 97 pages. You can download it from the Nieman Lab blog.

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