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New York Times editor shares how “Snow Fall” snowballed

Sixteen backcountry skiers caught in a Washington State avalanche. Three people dead and all the survivors willing to share their experiences with The New York Times.

The tragedy inspired a team of news people to try something new—an online interactive article that went on to capture the attention of more than 3 million people and garner a top journalism award.

Leading this team was Times sports editor Jason Stallman, who visited campus today to share with students, faculty, staff and local business leaders the process and discoveries of publishing “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.” His visit was sponsored by Lehigh and the Lehigh Valley chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators.

Just yesterday, on Wednesday, March 27, Stallman’s team received a 2012 George Foster Peabody Award, considered the most prestigious for electronic media.

The Times first reported the death of the three skiers in the February 2012 Tunnel Creek avalanche as a front-page article a few days after the incident. Two months later, reporter John Branch started to look more closely at what had occurred. That’s when it became evident the story was worthy of more than a 500-word follow-up article.

Branch gained the trust of the survivors and those close to the victims. He uncovered pieces of the story that had yet to be reported accurately.

“It’s very rare that all the people are willing to talk and do it on record,” Stallman said. “And that is how we knew we had to do something big with this.”

Inside the newsroom more pieces began to fall into place. Branch worked with a team of writers, designers and multimedia experts to recreate the story to help readers follow every detail. They integrated graphics, videos and photographs into Branch’s 17,000-word article. The entire mountain and every step of the avalanche were digitally recreated, even the path of each skier’s descent down the mountain.

“More journalistic stories like this can be done when more people are willing to help,” Stallman said. “It was a great opportunity to experiment. The team devoted themselves to this story.”

The Times news team felt a sense of anticipation as to how well such an extensive article would be received, or even read. In order to promote the article, the first 3,000 words were posted online a few days prior to its Jan. 16, 2013, publication and publicized through Times journalists with large Twitter followings.

It worked. “Snow Fall’s” more than 3 million readers viewed the online article for an average of 12 minutes—much longer than the 11 seconds of attention paid to an average Times online article. Surprisingly, 40 percent of readers viewed it on a mobile phone or tablet. “When a story is good and done in a thorough way, it will gain the attention of the readers,” Stallman said.

Story by Amanda Taylor

Posted on Thursday, March 28, 2013

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