Should this week’s stories be classified as pieces of journalism? With the rise of longform publishing sites over approximately the past five years (Longform, LongReads, and the now defunct Byliner being just a few), more readers have been exposed to literary journalism (lj), or they have at least read these types of extended narratives that draw from both the worlds of fiction and traditional reporting on platforms proclaiming a particular media identity. The genre has been around for well over one hundred years, which brings me back to my original question. Is “Snow Fall” a work of literary journalism? Would those in the literary camp respond in the negative after seeing the animated terrain and other visualizations created from statistics and LIDAR data? If not literary journalism, then traditional journalism with new media elements? Or the origins of a new form?
“Snow Fall” follows many conventions of literary journalism. The author devotes entire paragraphs to scenic descriptions, and he attempts to access the reasoning, the emotions of his subjects through their oral testimony. The composition timeline alone – Branch and his team took six months to research and write – suggests that “Snow Fall” is something other than traditional journalism. Most significantly, the narrative does not unfold in sequential order. We begin reading about Elyse Saugstad’s tumultuous sweep down Tunnel Creek before traveling back to the early twentieth century and then forward again to 2012, the time of the avalanche. Once again, a fairly standard convention of lj; the leaps and jumps create suspense and compress time, which often allows the author to capture more accurately the emotional content of the event. The video interviews and photograph slideshows, however, disrupt the purpose of these time manipulations.
The first interview with Saugstad undermines any pretense to suspense. Readers immediately know she survived the avalanche. The captions accompanying the personal photographs further reveal who survived and who did not by using present and past tense verbs respectively. Perhaps the disconnect resulted from a lapse in communication during editing; one wonders how the media team works with the author and the editorial team throughout production. Or perhaps Branch was not attempting to write a suspense-driven narrative but rather a more straightforward account of a tragic incident. If the latter, however, “Snow Fall” suffers from confused identity syndrome for the media elements clearly attempt to provide readers with an impression of Tunnel Creek as it appeared and felt in February 2012. And by treading into the realm of impressions, where complexity and contingency shape human decision-making, the piece becomes both a corrective to those who identified the skiers as irresponsible risk-takers and a memorial to Chris Rudolph, Johnny Brenan, and Jim Jack.
For now, I’ll call “Snow Fall” a hybrid piece, one tending closer to other contemporary pieces of literary journalism than feature articles in The New York Times. I’m still left with questions about audience and bias and how media elements, by appealing to conceptions of knowledge/authority, introduce different types of bias into stories. The team behind “Snow Fall” needed to spend more time considering the transitions between narrative and media and how these exchanges translate in readers’ minds.