Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Get the gray out of America’s newspapers

In 1995, the Society of News Design counted a dozen American newspapers as among the best-looking in the world. By 2010, there were none.

Though it may not be fair to judge the problems of American newspaper publishers strictly by their covers, you can’t help but wonder how much their weary- and retro-looking products are contributing to their faltering readership and advertiser support.

The shutout last year of U.S. papers on the World's Best Designed list wasn’t a fluke. Since 2000, only three U.S. titles have won the annual competition conducted by the international association of news designers.

American publications have been outclassed in recent years by papers like “i” in Portugal, Der Freitag in Germany, Azkia in Russia and Rzeczpospolita in Poland.

It wasn’t always so. As you can see from the table at left, several U.S. papers each year collected top design honors in the late 1990s. When papers like the Jackson Hole News, Spokane Spokesman, Detroit News and The (Columbia, SC) State snared top honors in 1995, they shared the podium with 11 international publications. The full historical list of winners is here.

In the last decade, only three U.S. papers made the list: The New York Times (2009), Hartford Courant (2000 and 2004) and the San Jose Mercury-News (2001). The bankruptcy of the owners of both the Courant and the Mercury-News subsequently have forced sharp reductions in their news staffs and news holes. This may explain why we haven’t heard from them lately.

While those fortunate enough to still have jobs in America’s down-sized newsrooms may argue that they don't have the time it takes to dream up glitzy graphics and layouts, I would argue that the industry can't afford to stick to the predominantly gray and text-heavy formats that characterize most newspapers.

The look of most American newspapers harks back to the limitations associated with setting hot type one letter at a time from the 1500s to the mid-1900s. But that era ended a good 50 years ago. Today, the increasingly mobile Internet makes it a snap to acquire text, data and images in real time, while powerful computers and software make it easy to create and fine-tune layouts in full WYSIWYG Technicolor. Sorry, folks: No excuses.

Good design is more than eye candy for readers, although there is nothing wrong with that, since loyal and growing readership is elemental to the long-range health of any publication. Because good design requires up-front thinking and advance planning, it shapes and sharpens all the content that goes into the newspaper, including words as well as the charts and illustrations that can wondrously improve reporting and storytelling when they are executed well.

Last but not least, good design is good for business. American publishers would be well advised to take note of not only the visual appeal but the business success of the global papers that have elbowed them off the best-dressed list.

In the inspiring video embedded below, Jacek Utko, a designer who has won numerous awards for revamping papers in Eastern Europe, makes the compelling case for how a well designed paper can improve both content and circulation.

If you care anything about healthy newspapers, please take a few minutes to watch it.


Blogger Joyce P. Simkin said...

I would like to include lack of proper spelling and grammar as another reason for the decline in newspaper readership. I've noticed in recent years more and more instances of misspellings and poor grammar in newspapers here in Michigan. I often wonder if as newspaper revenues decline, the first people to be laid off are proofreaders.

12:07 PM  
Blogger David B said...

@ Joyce - That's part of the problem...the other is writers with many more duties on their plate, so often times we'll be on to another task such as photo or design work instead of using that time to give stories a second look.

1:47 PM  
Blogger Kansan said...

The gray that needs to leave is on the top of the heads that lead the companies.

5:17 PM  
Blogger LeroyRobinson said...

Would be even nicer if the main title that Utko bragged about in his speech was moving forward.

Bonnier who owns it says that it circulation now is 17,600 with an incredible readership of more than 8 readers per copies, while in 2009 it said that it was upward than 20,000


Back to square one.

6:39 PM  
Blogger Mike Phillips said...

All true, Alan, all well put -- but much too late. I edited one of those SND "best" newspapers in the 90s (Bremerton, WA). I had a room full of talented people and sincere corporate support. We pushed The Sun from truly ugly to a center of world-class visual journalism.

Today, some of the talent's still there -- but it's a much smaller room. And the corporate folks are scrambling just to stay in the black.

The 90s can't be recaptured. If newspapers would make the commitment to excellence in the digital arts today that we made to the graphic arts then, they might yet have a chance.

But how many US news sites do you see that grab your eyeballs and don't let go? I know some new mom-and-pop ones here and there, emerging beneath the industry's radar. May they flourish and rise from the ashes of the big boys. --Mike Phillips

8:18 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I don't agree with the gray ... mostly because of one of them, a female version. What I do agree with is the need for change. We need to be willing to take a risk with a very stale product. We need to utilize all the wonderful talent that is out there to save the industry before it turns to dust.

8:56 PM  
Blogger Elaine said...

When I went to work for the Sacramento Bee, it was my 4th newsroom. All it cared about was what it looked like, and I was leery of taking a job at a paper that cared more about what it looked like than what it said. After five years, and several banner makeovers, including a blaring announcement of what day it was, I gave up. The paper was led by the photo and design departments, and a middle management incapable of editing a good story. So much for looks. Remember: the Wall Street Journal (pre-Murdoch) got much done without so much as a B&W photo.

9:32 PM  
Blogger Rod Rose said...

Between them, Joyce and David have the answers: We're being told - not asked, told - to do more with less time, obsolescent equipment, shrinking news holes, and other problems that originating when bright young things fresh from a web design class said "put all your content on your web sites, for free, and watch the revenue roll in." They were fools to make those unsubstantiated claims, and we were fools to listen.
I was at SND when it came to Indianapolis. Even then, many of the design tips, suggestions and so-called rules were irrelevant to small-market papers such as mine.
Expand the newshole, which will mean expanding revenue, and we'll have room for fancy.

5:47 AM  
Blogger Rod Rose said...

Joyce and David between them have identified most of the problem: We have too much to do, with not enough resources.

Design awards, in this economy, are irrelevant. I don't have the time, or the room, for fancy design.

But then, we were hyperlocal before the word was invented. Our readers want names and information; they don't care if the information is presented with millions of colors or charts that are impressive only to other charter-creators.

The newshole is a function of revenue; when revenue increases, so will the newshole.

We listened to bright young things fresh from a web design class who encouraged us to post, at no cost, all our content on the web. We've been bleeding red ever since.

5:56 AM  
Blogger omars said...

It's not that Americans can't do good design; it's just that we're not bold or interested enough. This year's SND winner in Portugal was designed by a Michigan State U. alum who previously had been laid off in Virginia (full disclosure: I'm the adviser to MSU's student newspaper). We shouldn't be forcing our best and brightest to look abroad to maximize their talents.

11:03 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I saw this coming for a very long time. Every year I've pointed out the fact that US papers just don't take the visual chances to push the envelope of creativity. American papers hate change, face the fact— creative people are hired and then put in a box. If you want to be creative you have to leave the country. Germany, Spain and almost any South American country will give designer the opportunity to push the boundaries.

US papers will look the same as long as the same individuals are calling the shots.

5:03 PM  
Blogger Niju Mengo said...

It's heartbreaking to see so many design talents leave the business because of cutbacks. Newspapers are run mostly by aging boomers, and instead of innovate and reinvent, all these bosses can think of is cutting staff and shrinking the newsroom so they can hold on to what's left of their pension. No one cares about the reader anymore, let along design.

2:25 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

There is so much here it would take a book to comment.

This seems like an argument we had in the '90s, when we were all saying "presentation matters," but few newspapers had the guts to follow through. The excuses were legion, just as they are in the comments here.

Why must presentation suffer when the newsroom shrinks? My newsroom, The Virginian-Pilot, is 30% smaller than it was four years ago, yet we have the same commitment to presentation now that we had then. Same is true for all the disciplines. We continue to aggressively pursue news of our community. We continue to pursue great photography. In fact, we just won newspaper Best Use of Photography in POYi for the fourth time since 1981. And we continue to pursue bold, innovative design.

Why would I give up on any of this because we have a smaller newsroom? Can we do everything we did in the '90s, when our newsroom was much larger? No. Can we continue to pursue the highest standards in reporting, photography, editing and design, even though our newsroom is much smaller? Absolutely. To do anything less would be irresponsible and a slap in the face to our readers who have come to expect the best from us.

I'm sorry, I'm frustrated reading this post and these comments. It sounds like we have given up. This is exactly the time when we need to fight for everything we do best.

Why are we even having this discussion so late in the game? I thought the industry decided a long time ago that presentation plays an important role in the daily newspaper. I still believe that. And no, I don't believe readers will just read everything we put in front of them as one of the posts implied. We all need to make our publications expressive and accessible. Great design helps readers find and connect to the news that interests them. I thought we had decided that a long time ago, too.

The industry needs us more than ever. We cannot give up. Sure, times are tough, but who promised us it was going to be easy forever? I'm proud of our profession's accomplishments and our record of informing, teaching and entertaining our readers.

As long as I am the editor of The Pilot I remain committed to great reporting, great photography, great editing and great design. Are we successful every day? No. Are we going to come in and fight for the best every day? You bet. What other choice is there? It's a choice we all face every day.

Ok, I've gone on long enough. If you've read this far, thanks. There is so much more to say, but I realize your time is valuable.

Finally, there are two inaccuracies I would like to correct.

First, in the original blog post, The Virginian-Pilot was left out of the winners list in 2001, when we were named World's Best-Designed along with the Merc.

From the SND winner's list:
Die Zeit (Germany)
Palabra (Mexico)
San Jose Mercury News (U.S.)
The Independent on Sunday (U.K.)
The Virginian-Pilot (U.S.)

Second, one of the comments said the art director of "I", was laid off in Virginia. Not exactly true. He worked for The Pilot as a designer, but left us for Link, a free daily owned by the same company that owns The Pilot. Link later folded, so the designer took the job in Portugal. Point is, we didn't get rid of him. He took a chance on another publication, and when it closed we had no opening for him, unfortunately.

Thanks for listening.

Denis Finley
The Virginian-Pilot

10:12 AM  
Blogger rknil said...

The focus on design likely started decades ago when a few people realized they could not handle the heavy lifting of editing day after day. So they came up with a way to spend time doing other things. It's been downhill ever since.

People like Denis Finley still want to insist that editing doesn't have to suffer while time is wasted on making the paper prettier. His Super Bowl 2010 edition is prime proof that editing does suffer. Whenever a newspaper elevates the "importance" of design, editing suffers.

I spent a good bit of time a few years ago looking at the front pages that trickled into the Newseum site. There was a high correlation between papers that monkeyed with their flag by sticking cutouts up there and glaring mistakes on that same page. That tells me the designer was much more focused on visual gimmicks than getting the display type right.

Like it or not, the display type is part of the presentation. Like it or not, with smaller staffs, you ARE making the choice between spending time on design and spending time on editing. Denis Finley has made his choice -- he chooses to go with display type errors in favor of a prettier newspaper. The readers deserve far better.

Newspapers will keep rolling downhill as long as they embrace this silliness.

10:42 AM  

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