Fairfax attempts to do online justice to long-form content with ‘Lost in the Long White Cloud’

The New York Times recently won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for its brilliant interactive journey through an avalanche, Snow Fall. It’s continued down that path with another interactive—and gutwrenching—story about Jeff Bauman, the man who had both his legs blown off after the Boston bombings. But Fairfax can play the long-format game too. 

“We’ve been looking for a while to develop a way of treating our long-form journalism better in a digital sense; something that enhances the experience for readers and breaks out of the story template,” says Sinead Boucher, group digital editor at Fairfax Media.

It had also been looking for the appropriate project use as a test run. And Charles Anderson’s tale about two pioneering pilots and a plane that lay undiscovered for 85 years, ‘Lost in the Long White Cloud’, was the one it decided to go with.

“It’s a great story, but it’s also got a lot of great assets and plenty of other things to work with,” she says.

Anderson worked closely with interactive designer Andy Ball—who’s part of Fairfax’s new, five strong interactive news team that also consists of data journalists (unlike some other parts of the business, Fairfax is currently recruiting for these roles)—and videographer Mike Scott on how best to tell the story. And she says they did a great job sourcing the historical content. But the creative opportunities are greatly enhanced with this method of storytelling, so they were also able to do things like commission a 3D model of what the plane would have looked like. 

She says the project has been a few months in the making. There was no full-time team working on the responsively-designed site and it was something of a labour of love that had to be squeezed in between everyone’s day to day tasks. But one of the best things about doing it, she says, “was the collaborative nature of it all” and the fact that this project has generated a lot of interest in the group and plenty of enthusiasm among journalists to work on similar projects of their own. 

She admits it is slightly paradoxical to the approach of Stuff and other online news sites, which are all about being “short and sharp”, and at this stage it is most definitely an outlier, so the platform certainly won’t be used for every online feature. But she says it has been a good way of exploring the potential of this type of storytelling and showing the journalists in its network what can be done with a change in mindset from focusing on readers consuming words and pictures to focusing on creating experiences and emotions through storytelling by using the various interactive tools at their disposal. 

She says Anderson had already started working on the story before it decided to go down this path, so there was some reverse engineering required, although “that didn’t throw up any issues”. But with a desire to do two or three more of these projects by the end of the year, she says it will aim to start the process when the story is first being researched.

This is the first stage of an evolution—both for journalism and for Fairfax itself—and she says it offers a glimpse at where the company might take its digital products and strategies in the future. And with the ability to see which devices or browsers it’s being read on (Safari is high so far), or how long readers are interacting with the content, it can tailor it to suit.

UPDATE: Boucher says the site had more than 10,000 visitors in its first couple of days. 

After tech start-up Scroll Kit decided to show how quickly it could recreate Snow Fall with its own software​ (it says it took the New York Times six months and a powerful multi-person dev team to hand-code), it was hit with a takedown notice for violating copyright. Boucher says it wouldn’t want to take a “cookie cutter approach” with every story it does in this style, but she wouldn’t rule out using such tools if it made the process faster and better.

While there are plenty of apps that do justice to long-form content, it’s refreshing to see some innovation in this space from online news providers. There’s no doubt this multi-media content is engaging and attractive. But one of the issues with these types of stories is their resource intensive nature. And as editorial departments shrink (check out this sobering tale of newspaper decline by ex Sydney Morning Herald editor Eric Beecher), and as investigative teams disappear altogether in some cases, time is not something many journalists seem to have these days. 

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