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Subcompact Publishing meet Epic Storytelling

(This post originally appeared on Medium)

On December 20, 2012 the New York Times released Snow Fall, The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, a 5 part story of skiers and snowboarders trapped by an avalanche in Washington State’s Cascade mountain range.

It is an amazing story reminiscent of Jon Krakauer’s, now famous 1996 Outside Magazine piece, Into Thin Air. As a piece of journalism, John Branch’s Snow Fall is an extraordinary piece of writing. It is a form of writing not often seen on the Web; long, well researched, impeccably edited, Pulitzer bound. But most of the conversation around the piece surrounds its layout and presentment.

In between the words are incredible motion graphics, videos and photos that bring life to the story. In fact, most people commenting on the story really only viewed it as a picture book. Due to its length and depth I had to carve out a solid hour to read it and haven’t viewed every element.

Snow Fall is everything that Craig Mod outlines in his article “Subcompact Publishing: Simple Tools and Systems For Digital Publishing” isn’t. Snowfall is Epic.

Craig outlines several characteristics of Subcompact Publishing, which arguably Snow Fall follows… it has clear navigation, HTMLish, Open Web etc. But Craig’s overall theme in Subcompact publishing is that it is lightweight, lesser than by design. Subcompact publishing is really something that should be easy to do.

In contrast, Snow Fall was not easy to do. It took 11 people 6 months to create. It is greater than in every way to Subcompact pieces (like this one). Snow Fall isn’t the first of these pieces. ESPN’s Doc Ellis story, The Verge and the work that Pitchfork are doing lately with their features are all coming from the same place.

Of course, these long intensive pieces are the stuff magazine journalism is based on. These publishers are just following in the footsteps of their predecessors.

Gay Talese, Frank Sinatra Has a Cold. (Esquire, April 1966)
Hunter S. Thompson, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved. (Scanlan’s Monthly, June 1970)
Neal Stephenson, Mother Earth, Mother Board: Wiring the Planet. (Wired, December 1996)
David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster. (Gourmet Magazine, August 2004).

We stand on the shoulders of giants.

There seem to be 2 separate but related currents running in publishing right now, minimlaists and maximalists. Subcompact Publishing meet Epic Storytelling.

Epic Storytelling is a designed experience.

Epic Storytelling is about bringing significant resources to bear to tell a story. It requires specialists bringing their craft to it for it to happen.

Epic Storytelling is bespoke.

It is not (at least right now) system driven. As NY Times Design Director Andrew Kueneman: said in the Atlantic Wire

“This story was not produced in our normal CMS, which is probably pretty obvious.”

There are attempts to create publishing systems that can create Epic Stories systematically, (The Atavist) but these are in their infancy.

Epic Storytelling requires the reader to focus.

It is not lightweight for the creator or the reader. Epic Storytelling wants your attention in a way that is different than Subcompact. Both require focus but Subcompact enables focus by removing cruft, making reading easier. Epic Storytelling rewards those readers who give it focus.

Epic Storytelling is an art, not a science.

Buzzfeed and HuffPo turned writing into a science, the science of optimizing clicks and headline writing. A/B the piece into existence. Epic Storytelling creates a splendid artifact. One, that is what it is, not optimized for page views but optimized for experience.

Epic Storytelling is considered.

Given the resources required to make these pieces, they need to follow a considered process. One that is well suited for large editorial organizations. The exact qualities that impede them in the Subcompact world, help them in the Epic world.

I see these two worlds not as opposite ends of a spectrum but rather a Venn diagram overlapping. They share as many qualities as they don’t. I believe that they can co-exist in the world quite nicely. At times each will be envious of the other, for one’s strengths are often the other’s weakness.

Maybe the best publications are equally adept at both and that is where the future lies.

Jon Lax More posts by Jon Lax