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Design in Online Journalism

When media companies began moving online over the past decade, they opened up a whole new realm of ways to tell a story. Some of the tools inherently built in to the online platform have already seen widespread adoption. Links now appear in nearly every article on the web (even this one). Instead of simply referencing a document or another article, the author can simply send the reader along with just a click. Commenting on an article used to involved sending a letter to the editor, which might have been printed a day or two later. Now, comments are instantaneous, allowing for the readers to fully engage with one another in discussion.

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One thing that has remained largely unchanged is the design and the format of stories. For the most part, online media has simply been old media’s products all put in the same place. You’re still reading an article, looking at a photo, or watching a video, they’re just all on the same screen.

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As the platform has evolved, some journalists have expanded the idea of how to tell a story online. Few have been better than the New York Times’ recent piece by John Branch called “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek”.

To call it an article wouldn’t do it justice. While the package is tied together through a textual narrative, it is all the supporting additions that flesh out the user experience. Why quote someone when you can embed a video interview beside the story? Why show a map or picture of the mountain when you can have a virtual fly-over a model of the mountain?

The small touches show the attention of detail the team spent on the design of the story during its months in development. GIFs of blowing snow serve as the backdrop for the title page. Dimming the background from white to a dark grey as the reader scrolls down the page, to simulate being buried in snow. The visual components of the story dynamically change to match the narrative. All of these design additions, many of them only possible online, changed this from simply an article, into a story.

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