Pulitzer winner John Branch (’96): The Making of NYT’s “Snow Fall”
By Natalie Boyd
What started as a small story about an avalanche turned into a precedent-setting multimedia project for reporter John Branch (MA ’96) of the New York Times.
Branch, a Times sportswriter, is the author of “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek,” a 15,000 word story accompanied by videos, photographs and 3D maps and graphics, that was published by the Times last December.
The story recently won the prestigious American Society of Newspaper Editors award for online storytelling.
Branch, who received an undergraduate degree in business at CU before taking his master’s in journalism in 1996, recently spoke to JMC classes and a campuswide audience about how he and a team of Times videographers, photographers, designers and coders developed the project both online and in a print special section.
Sixteen staffers worked six months, in between other projects, to create a digital, immersive storytelling experience. Even though the Times incorporated digital technology beyond the norm for Branch’s article, the main objective was to keep the written piece as the focal point. Times staffers didn’t want readers to become distracted from the narrative by too many special effects.
The assignment started in the standard way of the newspaper world, an editor assigning a breaking news story about a Washington state avalanche that killed three people to a reporter named William Yardley. After that story appeared, Branch’s sports editor called him. The editor knew the avalanche was unusual. Avalanches usually kill one person – often the skier who triggers the slide. It’s rare that an avalanche tumbles down on a group of skiers. The editor wanted Branch to explore the event in depth and to see if it was part of a trend.
Branch began by reading previous articles about the avalanche and tracking down the skiers and others involved in the incident. The first few people he contacted readily agreed to talk with him and provided more names and contact information. Some of those people were hesitant to talk about what had happened, but eventually agreed.
“I wanted to know every detail,” he said.
Even though Branch interviewed everyone involved, the story only quote 13 people – skiers and rescue workers – who were on the scene that day. The idea, Branch said, was to ensure the story remained centered on what happened that day and on the people who lived it.
The creative team set out to re-create the avalanche. Using data Branch collected, they created graphics that showed the mountain and how fast the avalanche progressed down the slope. They added different maps to show the different routes individual skiers took and to track their descents. They incorporated videos of the surviving skiers telling what happened that day, adding an emotional punch to the story. Designing the website provided obstacles for the staffers since different browsers interpret codes differently and special designs had to be created for tablets and smart phones.
The story drew it had 3.5 million page views in the first 10 days and is among the longest pieces the Times has ever published.