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A Study on Digital Journalism

A Graduation Project

Taylor Alan Campbell, Author

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Interview With John Branch

John Branch joined The New York Times in September 2005 as a reporter in Sports. Mr. Branch was a sports columnist at The Fresno Bee from 2002 to 2005, and worked at The Colorado Springs Gazette as a business reporter from 1996 to 1998 and a sports reporter from 1998 to 2002. Born in Redondo Beach, Calif., Mr. Branch earned a Bachelor of Science in business from the University of Colorado Boulder in 1989 and a Master of Arts in journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder in 1996.

The following interview took place on Monday, November 10th 2014 and was conducted over email. The questions asked were specific to writing as a journalist for a digitally produced story, namely, "Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek". 

Taylor Campbell: Was Snowfall always meant to be a digital piece from its conception?If so, what was the reasoning behind that decision?

John BranchNot at all. The story started as most stories do: Something happens, and we go check it out. It wasn't until I had done about two months of reporting that there was any consideration for something different. I had done many, many interviews, and I was trying to make sense of everyone's version of events and how they matched up with one another and with all the records of the day -- 911 calls, text messages, time stamps on GoPro videos, police/sheriff reports, etc. Mostly for my own sanity, I created a minute-by-minute timeline, and cut and pasted all the info I had into it. In the end, I had a huge file, a minute-by-minute (roughly) account, told through the words of the survivors. I had moved from New York to California in the middle of all this, and to show my editors that I had been plugging away, I sent them that file -- something I've never done before. They read through it and found it compelling, and then passed on the file to the heads of several NYT departments -- graphics, interactive, photo, video. The message was essentially this: 'Branch is working on something that we think could be quite compelling, and we'd love your help on this. Take a look and let us know what you think.' And then is when the size and scope of the project changed. A few guys on our multimedia team saw potential in doing something out of the ordinary. 

Taylor Campbell: To what extent did you as the writer have control over the story? (Such as anything including font size, page layout, video and audio format?) Likewise, how much thought goes into the level of control the reader has while viewing the article?

John Branch: I'd like to think I had total control of the story. All the words were mine, and they were not changed to accommodate the various multimedia elements. But how those words are presented were (and always are) mostly out of my control. We don't write headlines or captions, for example. In this case, I was basically a consultant as the digital piece was being designed (and, it's important to note, Snow Fall was also a 14-page special section in print, which was extraordinary in its own way). I had many conversations with the graphic artists and designers along the way, mostly on the graphic elements. As for the 'look" of the piece, mine was just one opinion. 

Taylor Campbell: Does a project of this magnitude require a team? If so, how large and what was the composition? What kinds of costs are required for a project like this?

John Branch: Yes, of course, there was a team. In the end, I think 16 people had a hand in it. I was involved from start to finish. A photographer and video journalist were assigned to it fairly early. And then, once we decided on which graphics to construct, about 6-8 graphic artists got involved. There were page designers and 2-3 coders, applying the digital magic to all forms of devices (various browsers, from IBM desktops to iPhones, etc).  We've never added up the number of hours or the costs involved. We don't divide our work that way. (I can't, for example, even guess how many hours I've been working on a current project. We don't sign in and sign out when we move from one story to another, which might happen many times in a day.)

Taylor Campbell: As a story that includes multiple forms of media, why choose to keep the videos, audio clips, and imagery as supplementary information as opposed to integral elements to the story? Was this an author’s decision?

John Branch: Ha. I would say that they were/are "integral" parts of the story. But I know what you mean. Those are decisions made by our interactive web editors and graphics editors. As it is, most of the elements start playing without prompting from the reader; it is the flashing cursor that triggers photos or parts of graphics. There was talk of making this something that could be viewed/read without a mouse click. But that proved a bit elusive. Should videos just start playing while someone is reading? Should the voice of the interview subject replace the text words? But people engage in different ways, in different places. What if someone is at work and doesn't have the sound up? What if they are looking at an iPhone, not a laptop? Certain limitations were put in place. The reader can't just sit back and experience it, entirely, as if it's a movie. 

Taylor Campbell: What does a lengthier, investigative narrative format achieve with regards to Snowfall, as opposed to a shorter piece?

John Branch: Detail. Context. Richness. Could Snow Fall have been 1,000 words, like a typical NYT story, instead of 17,000? Of course. But  you'd probably have a news story, with quotes from a few people about what happened. And readers would have digested it and, more than likely, forgotten it shortly after clicking on the next 1,000-word story. We felt this story deserved a full airing, from all the perspectives, to make it both more compelling and more educational. 

Taylor Campbell: Did writing for a digital medium alter your writing process? If it did in what ways?

John Branch: No. For a short time, there was talk that we might change chapter breaks, or alter transitions as the text blended into graphics or photos or whatever. In the end, we didn't do it, because it didn't seem necessary. But I imagine those are the types of conversations we'll have, more and more, in the coming months and years. 

Taylor CampbellWith the flexibility that the digital medium offers, can aspects of journalism such as the lead or the hook on a new form in an image or video for example?

John Branch: Sure. I think we're limited only by our imagination, and we're learning that the "old" way of presenting or structuring a story does not always need to apply. I've joked that Snow Fall, if not the longest story the NYT has ever run (it's close), is certainly the longest without a nut graph. You have to read, what, 15,000 words before you know who lives and who dies. That's not very newspaper-like.

Taylor Campbell: Are there any pieces that you have read that you feel have fully taken advantage of the tools offered by the digital medium?

John Branch: I'm a writer, so I'm not out searching for digital pieces. But many of them get passed on to me, because of Snow Fall. And I'm proud that Snow Fall holds up so well after two years. I've seen lots of imitators, but they all seem to be forgetting the core magic of Snow Fall -- each element added to the story, provided extra information. The graphics were visual story-telling elements, built in science and data and research. Most Snow Fall imitators seem to try to emulate the look, but do it with nothing more than large photos and slowly moving, evocative photos. Those are bells and whistles. Nothing about Snow Fall was done simply to dazzle the reader. Each element was specifically designed to inform the reader. That's a huge difference. 
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