Don’t Bury the Link Under All That “Snow Fall”

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 1.09.30 PM“Snow Fall” is a dead-end.

The New York Timesonline feature about a deadly avalanche broke new ground in using images, video, geo-data and interactive elements to help tell a story. It quickly drew in 3.5 million readers, according to Romenesko; was influential enough to turn “Snow Fall” into a verb; and launched a thousand debates on what it meant for the future of journalism.

But yet the story remains a dead-end.

Not for online storytelling. Some publications have been working on similar things independently, and many that weren’t are quickly learning to add many of the tricks to their storytelling reportoire.

It’s a dead-end for a simpler reason.

The 15,000 word epic has zero links. No links to other Times stories. No links to anything outside of the New York Times.

The story has a number of quasi-links. For instance, clicking someone’s name brings up a photo-gallery that plays in a overlay.  But none of these are standard links; they are odd bits of CSS and Javascript that point to other elements inside the story.

If you are thinking about this piece as part of the Web or the internet, the success of the story means there are a huge number of inbound links to the story – whether that’s from blogs, Facebook or Twitter.

But “Snow Fall” is a terminal node. It doesn’t point to anything else.

(Please let me make it clear that I applaud the work the Times put into this story and presentation. I love how much the story presentation added to the narrative and respected the story and the reader. I offer this critique in order to help the Times improve and that other publishers don’t draw the wrong lessons from “Snow Fall”.)

“Snow Fall” isn’t the only New York Times story that lacks links. The recent controversial piece on becoming a Brooklyn hipster — that too had not a single link. The Times is actually quite bad at linking generally, though they’ve done some nice things recently augmenting news stories with a sidebar of related content.

The lack of links is also common with magazines, which have the habit of putting their print pieces on the web with some thought to design, but none to adding links.

Unfortunately, many of the post-“Snow Fall” imitation pieces seem to be falling into this kind of magazine thinking and follow the no-link model.

Pitchfork’s feature on Daft Punk? No links. The story talks about the band’s previous work, their collaborators, other albums and artists. But not one of those gets a link. Readers get no way to explore these influences or even read a Pitchfork review of an earlier Daft Punk album.

The Colorado Springs Gazette has an awesome 3-part feature on how the military is finding ways to discharge wounded soldiers, stripping them of healthcare benefits. Great reporting, graphics, and videos. Again not a single link.

To be fair, other “Snow Fall”-influenced pieces do include some links:

The Washington Post‘s story on cyclist Joe Dombrowski breaking out in the post-Armstrong cycling world starts out strongly with two links in the third paragraph, but links taper off, and things that are simple and useful to link – like a mention of Armstrong-teammate Taylor Hamilton’s tell-all book never get linked.

The Verge’s excellent report on the life and death of America’s video arcades did better – clocking in about 9 links, (including one odd one to Senator Chuck Grassley’s Twitter account), but given how deeply it was diving into arcana, the linking leaned towards the thin side.

But, I’m concerned that publishers seem to be thinking that marquee stories are too good to be sullied by links.

That’s really unfortunate. There’s lots of reasons that one should link, and links serve a number of purposes (something I’ll be writing more about later).

But let’s start with the largest one: links are what distinguish online publishing from what came before. Links are the threads of the Web.

Fancy interactive displays for digital text? That existed long before the Web and after with DVD-ROMs.

Though few think about what HTTP means, it means Hypertext Transfer Protocol, or in less techy speech, the method by which a document that has links to and from other documents is sent to your computer.

Links are living context. Links provide resources to readers. Links let readers fact-check you easily. Links join your story to the wider world of stories that your publication and others are telling.

Links tell readers that you know that your story, your post, exists in relation to the wider world, and that you know your current story is part of a larger cultural effort and often part of a larger story thread a publication has been spinning for years.

(Shameless plug here: Contextly makes it dead simple for writers to add links to the body of stories, into sidebars and into the related section at the end of articles. You can visit our homepage to learn more about our content recommendation service or drop us a note at

So, yes, publishers should spend the time to think about how you can tell better stories with innovative HTML5 elements and cool JavaScript tricks.

But don’t let that blind you to the fact that you are already publishing in a golden age for writing and reading, a hypertext world where an astonishing rich web of stories, facts, opinions, research and GIFS are just clicks away.

In fact, it’s that very net of links that’s going to let readers find your “Snow Fall”-esque masterpiece, both the moment you publish it and for years afterwards.

Don’t discard links to construct self-contained monuments. Instead, make gorgeous portals.

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