Though I read it when it was initially published, I chose to revisit Snow Fall, as it was one of the first instances of interactive data journalism that I’d seen and recognized as something distinct from just a numbers-driven story. This distinction comes primarily from its unique layout and interactivity, as well as the fact that while data-driven, it did not rely wholly on numbers and statistics, but also on facts and details about the geographic area the story takes place in..Reported by The New York Times’ John Branch, the Pulitzer-winning article recounts the struggles of 16 men and women after they fell victim to an avalanche while on a skiing and snowboarding trip at Tunnel Creek in Washington State. The event left some injured and three dead.
Another aspect of the story which really rang out to me the first time I read it and again this time, was how Branch manages to intersperse concrete numbers and statistics into the story while still providing a — narrative. One might think that any emphasis on numbers in a piece of narrative storytelling like this might detract from the strength of the narrative, but in this case it does just the opposite by doubling the impact by incorporating the numbers in sentences like: “Within seconds, the avalanche was the size of more than a thousand cas barreling down the mountain and weighed millions of pounds. Moving 70 miles per hour, it crashed through the sturdy old-growth trees, snapping their limbs and shedding bark from their trunks.”
Neither do the animated infographics and backgrounds detract from the piece. They once again do the opposite by giving readers a very firm image of the ambience and tone intended by the narrative. They also provide valuable visualizations of what it’s like to be on the mountainside, and where the group’s travels up and down the mountain took them.
I was blown away by how tightly constructed and well-planned this piece was the first time I read it in 2012, and it still has the same chilling impact nearly three years later. It’s not any surprise whatsoever that it won the 2013 Pulitzer for feature writing.