How Local Can Do 'Snow Fall' On A Budget

Late last year, The New York Times made waves with its interactive feature "Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek." The Pulitzer Prize-winning feature spawned a number of similar big-budget projects at other publications. But Charlottesville, Va., alt weekly C-Ville Weekly, with its newsroom staff of five, teamed up with Vibethink to use the "Snow Fall" treatment on the story of a proposed bypass in Albemarle Co., Va., and successfully pulled it off, even with its tiny budget.

Every local newspaper has one: The story that just won’t end. For C-Ville Weekly it’s a decades’ old fight over a planned bypass, but the newsroom decided to treat the topic not as a source of headaches but as a chance for digital innovation.

The Weekly, a 23,000 circulation newspaper in Charlottesville, Va., spent the summer collaborating with a local digital agency to build an interactive experience akin to The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Snow Fall” project. The finished result — called “The Road” — is more than just a lovely arrangement of video, text and maps. Instead, its creators hope it will become a platform for civic engagement.

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It’s been about six months since Giles Morris, the Weekly’s editor, started having conversations with his staff about an interactive project. Although they originally considered some lighter, simpler subjects, they decided instead to focus on the controversial plan to build a Route 29 bypass around Charlottesville and its many potential environmental, social and economic repercussions.

“We’re a newspaper, so we’ve got to do something that really matters in the community,” Morris says. “We’re not going to do an adventure race. We’re going to do a news story.” 

C-Ville Weekly's interactive feature "The Road" featured audio clips along with video, photos and charts.

Although other news organizations have produced similar projects in the last year, this type of work remains rare, especially at a newspaper as small as the Weekly, which is one of two weekly papers owned by the Charlottesville Publishing Group. With just five editorial staff members, Morris looked for outside partners and found a willing group of collaborators at Vibethink, the digital agency that built the Weekly’s WordPress website last year.

Conceptual meetings started at the beginning of the summer, and reporters and Web developers alike sketched out designs, gathered information and created tools to help readers to become a part of the story. The finished product includes infographics, maps, videos, photos, multiple opportunities for reader comments and a poll to gauge public awareness of the project.

“It’s time and effort and money, but it’s really going to make a splash in our market,” Morris says.

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In fact, the Weekly only had to pay out $2,000 in developer expenses, but Morris says that figure can be misleading. “It was heavily collaborative and neither of us could’ve made it make business sense independently,” he says, noting that both the Weekly and Vibethink thought it was worth taking the shot to see if such a project was viable and ultimately replicable within their respective business models.

Seth Liddy, Vibethink’s chief technical officer, says the staff was thrilled to push the boundaries of local digital journalism. In all, he estimates that about 200 hours of development time went into the project, but the effort was worthwhile.

”It’s a proof of concept to show what can really be done inside a community,” he says. “That’s why we’re really excited.”

Liddy and Morris hope the opportunity arises for another project like this soon. The Weekly didn’t seek advertisers for “The Road,” because the staff wanted to prove that the format worked first. Any subsequent projects, he says, will likely include some type of sponsorship.

On its first day, the project received 3,700 hits, which is comparable to the performance of any strong centerpiece story. (The Weekly’s website receives an average of 50,000 unique visitors each month, according to internal metrics.) But Morris says the true success of the project will measured over the course of months, not days.

‘We hope that this becomes a permanent primer,” he says. “People around the state, when they’re trying to explain this to somebody, they can send them here.”


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