Creating ‘Snow Fall’ projects on snowflake budgets, and other tips from the NYT’s John Niedermeyer

John Niedermeyer in Frankfurt, Germany, to speak at the SND 2014 workshop.

John Niedermeyer was in Frankfurt, Germany, to speak at the SND 2014 workshop.

John Niedermeyer is Deputy Director of Digital News Design at the New York Times. While at  SND Frankfurt, he spoke with Adam Baumgartner about his role in producing quality design that preserves the Times’ legacy in a digital environment.

AB: What’s it like when you’re beginning a project? What sort of give-and-take or back-and-forth do you have between editorial folks, designers and developers?

JN: I think in the case of big, enterprise projects where there’s a lot of intersection, it generally starts with a conversation up front, sometimes when it’s still being reported out. Photographers have to be assigned; if there’s videographers they have to be sent out. The cool thing is when we can be involved at that stage. If we know we want to try to do something special in the presentation, we can meet with those editors and help shape what they’re going to go out and capture. In other cases, we’re even able to shape the form the writing takes.

There was this story by Jodi Kantor a couple weeks ago about scheduling at big service chains – like Starbucks was the big example in the story – and how they have this crazy software that schedules everything within an inch of craziness for people who have to close the store down at midnight and then open it up again at 5 a.m. and they have kids and their schedules change and they have to find out what to do with their kids. It was a crazy story, but we had these really personal photos … that we wanted to pair with a paragraph in the story. [Kantor] went back and rewrote the story to accommodate that more, and was actually trying to write to the photos.

That’s a case where, then, that sort of found its way back into print, that sort of direction. It’s a small thing, but I think it helps tell that story in a more personal way.

AB: You raise an interesting point, and that’s that this has to go in print, too. You suggested that design influenced some of the print design. What sort of relationship do you have with the print side of things?

JN: It’s interesting. I mean, when I started in 2007, it was actually my first journalism job, but the digital design team, which was much smaller then, sat amongst print art directors. And Tom Bodkin, the design director, had an office right around the corner. Not that we were like every other person was print, digital, print, digital, but we sort of interacted.

And that, for me, was fascinating, because I could look at what proofs were coming off the printer and try to understand why they were doing things they do, and getting to know the op-ed art directors and how they have to assign illustrations almost every day, and how it comes together at 9 o’clock every night. …

I mean, sometimes I get accused of trying to bring too much of that [print] layout idea too much to the web. I really do love working with typography and art directing pages in that sense, when [web] really is a different medium. But I really like that fuzziness between print and digital.

Another example, and this was maybe 2009, we redesigned the opinion section online. … We launched in 2009 or 2010 – I can’t remember – and the opinion editor, Andy Rosenthal, actually liked it so much that he wanted to go back to print and figure out how to do that version of it. …

It goes both ways. It does go both ways. I take great inspiration from the art director, and the direction of the magazine that they do every week. They do great work.

AB: How reusable are the projects that you build? A huge thing that people are concerned about is scaleability. … Has any of this been templated, or has any of this influenced tools in other parts of the newsroom?

JN: Yeah, I mean, the graphics group, the design group and the interactive news technology group, those are the three big groups of developers and designers in the newsroom. We’re all in GitHub. We have a private Git repository. So a lot of times, a project will come up fast on deadline, and we’ll know, “Oh, this could take the form of this other thing so-and-so did two weeks ago.”

I wish we got better about documenting those things or collecting them in a way that someone who hasn’t worked there for seven years would know how to find them, and so they know that they could just clone that project. That would get them a start or 70 percent the way there. …

We make use of tools like Google Spreadsheets to be able to give someone who isn’t a technical person an editing process so they can hit publish, spit out a JSON file that we can consume and use for a presentation.

A couple of folks in my team and in graphics came up with what we’re calling a photo essay template, which, with the support of a spreadsheet, allows us to spin up a very quick and dirty photo essay with text and large photos. It’s outside of the article template at the moment, but it’s a tool that helps with those pieces that will hopefully someday be available inside of the CMS.

snowfallnytAB: Kind of along those lines, a lot of the organizations you’re speaking to today don’t have quite the resources that the New York Times does. For a company that wants to take on a “Snow Fall” project with a snowflake budget, what do you recommend?

JN: Oh, look what you did there.

AB: I know, I was thinking about it.

JN: I’m gonna use that.

You know, I think we’ve seen that the things that were really crazy with “Snow Fall.” You talk about those 3D visualizations, and reporting out, and shooting – obviously, not every organization is going to have that.

I mean, we’ve seen organizations like NPR that don’t have a print product, so there’s no gigantic visuals budget like a normal newspaper might have. But they’ve found really interesting things to blow up and treat specially. NatGeo has done that as well. Almost everyone has done some variation of it.

You know, you can do a lot with photography and text, and even video. I think a lot of people are doing video.

We’re just fortunate at the Times to have resources to focus people and time on things.

AB: So for a project like “Snow Fall,” what were the challenges involved in getting people who allocate resources to buy in? Were there any higher ups who said, you know, we don’t have time or money for this?

JN: No, you know, I think everyone was excited to see where this could go.

We were all a little hamstrung. Time to time, in print, you can ramp up a special section. Like “Snow Fall” ran 20-some pages in print and had gorgeous static print graphics and photography. There was no concept of that in digital.

So I think people were really keen to explore that and figure that out.

This was a sports story. We couldn’t have done something like that on breaking news or something that had competitive pressure. This was something that we reported out over a few months, and we could wait for some exploration. So we sort of intentionally picked that project for that reason.

AB: Kind of diving off of that, you work for an organization that has a really strong reputation, and you have to protect that reputation and that brand. What sort of challenges do you run into therein?

JN: I think despite all this innovation and encouragement we get to do things, the place also has this profoundly conservative frame of mind in that we do need to get things right. We aren’t fast and loose. Even if you’re on deadline, if it’s not in a place where people feel good about it, it doesn’t go out. There’s standards and traditions in place that we’ve instilled in the digital reporting even as we move faster.

I think at times that can frustrate. I think it can be frustrating when, you know, there’s a rhythm to how things roll out in print, and you save certain things for Sunday but the digital audience isn’t necessarily there.

I think there’s a lot around audience development that we can figure out to know more about our readers, and figure out how to tailor our digital stuff with different timing than some of our print roll out.

AB: So, for people who work with similar environments, what advice do you have for people who are interested in helping usher in this digital mentality in a print-centric workplace?

JN: I think you just need people who get this stuff and who are users of these new mediums.

You do have to be quicker. You do have to be be, sometimes, not as verbose.

What makes NYT Now so great is when you’ve got those two minutes when you’re waiting for the elevator, and you’re like “Tell me what I need to know. Don’t present me with headlines and summaries that I really have to pay attention [to get what I want.]”

AB: That’s probably my favorite news app.

JN: I think we only just went out the door with sort of the first generation, but I think there’s a lot more that can be expanded on with that.

In the political sphere, for the midterms, one of our big projects was to retire our caucus blog, which was sort of the daily, couple times a day pacing of political news stuff that didn’t really rise to the level of like a print article.

We sort of decided to retire that and we launched First Draft this week, Monday, and what it is is much more of a stream. There’s no more post page. Hopefully [it will have] short things throughout the day that cater to people who are very attuned to political news and want that constant juice.

So we designed something that really looks good on the phone. It’s just a really simple, one column thing. We put tweet embeds and Instagrams in there, and it sort of has a little more casual a tone, but it’s still our same journalists doing their jobs.

I think Carl Hulse, the long time editor who’s been working on this stuff, said it best. He said, “All of these reporters have things left over in their notebooks at the end of the day.”

This project is an attempt to get these folks thinking quicker and getting them more on the schedule of continuously getting things out.

We’re not trying to just dump content out there. These are all pretty well thought through and edited in the same way that we do. It’s a way to get the Washington bureau and political reporters more into that snacking pace.

AB: You’ve spoken a lot about bringing a digital mindset to the workplace. That’s a struggle at a lot of journalism schools, too. I know the Times partnered with Indiana University to create an iteration of NYT Now. That said, what do you think journalism schools should be doing to prepare designers, reporters, or even developers for the modern and changing newsroom environment.

JN: I know there’s this idea that, “Oh, you’ve got to learn HTML and you’ve got to work Photoshop and do it all,” if you want to be an online editor or producer, if you want to start your career that way.

I think those things help, especially if you’re working at a smaller place where you have an opportunity to wear many hats like that if you can cobble something together and get it up on the site.

I think those skills are important, but they might be overvalued. I think the things you learn in journalism school around judgment, basic writing skills are very useful. …

AB: This one is maybe a little more delicate. What are your thoughts on the Times’ innovation report, especially given your work in the digital realm.

JN: A lot of us in the digital world, I think, were nodding along as we read this thing.

There also were things written into it that were rhetorical devices. The document was intended to jar us out of our complacency, and say, “No, look, this is happening. You can’t just say you’re the New York Times and everything will take care of itself.”

So, the thing I’m really excited to have come out of it is, we have an audience development person, Alex MacCallum, who has been placed in the masthead and who has been placed in charge of getting to know our readers better and is helping us figure out how to give them what they went and what they need and how best to do that.

I like that.

I think we’ve made progress on the sort of ushering everything to the print Sunday schedule. I think we’ve made progress getting stuff up earlier in the week when I think people are at their desks and maybe looking for something to read.

I think we’re doing a lot on the technology side of stuff that isn’t readily available to readers right now, but it’s stuff that is connecting threads behind the scenes that is related content.

It’s hard for us to get readers more coverage. If they’re interested in a story about Syria or Iraq, how do I tease out the right things from the archive that would help illuminate that for the reader?

That takes a massive sort of technology investment that is also happening right now.

Eventually, once this is complete, we’ll be better able to suggest those sort of things to readers, either because they’re related to what they’re reading, or because there’s a personalization angle.

If you like opinion, maybe there’s a way we can put more of that in front of you without losing the editorial judgment that something like our homepage or A1 brings.

We never want to lose that, but there has to be more for our readers. They’re coming from so many different countries, different cities, they’re wanting different things. We have such a breadth of coverage that we just need to figure out technologically how to help them get there.

AB: Awesome. Is there anything else you would like to add?

JN: I feel incredibly fortunate everyday to go to work at the New York Times. People push me there in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever been pushed before. I’m really thankful for everybody I work with. It’s a great place to be.

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"I mean, sometimes I get accused of trying to bring too much of that [print] layout idea too much to the web.”

— John Niedermeyer