In a recent study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism polling 18,000 people worldwide, 67% of respondents said they don’t trust the media. It’s biased, it’s propaganda, it’s got a hidden agenda, they said. Some experts blame this decline on the speed of the digital news cycle—it’s just too much to keep up with, and journalistic standards suffer as a result. But the newsroom has always been a frenzied place. Other experts blame the sheer volume—it’s not just reporting for a paper and its weekly supplements, it’s the digital component, the social component, the video and audio, too. It’s “always on,” and on every possible platform.
It’s both these things, and a lot more, too, but one thing most experts can agree on is that digital storytelling is the lifeblood of any media company. As Newspaper Design: Editorial Design From the World’s Best Newsrooms purports, digital-first means visual-first, and that means a lot more designers in the news room.
In addition to examining the qualities that make for a good visual journalist, Newspaper Design takes on the ambitious job of surveying the history of editorial design, looking to its past in order to predict what the future of media might hold. To accomplish such a feat, we hear from some of the world’s leading designers, like Mario Garcia, Javier Errea, Antoni Cases, Mark Porter, and Lucie Lacava (a woman!). If these names are less familiar to you, you either haven’t read the list of winners of the Society for News Design (SND) awards in a few decades, or you’re simply content to read newspapers without examining how they’re made (which is fine). Either way, the fact that these people shape the way you’re informed about your world yet remain mostly anonymous speaks to one of their many unifying qualities: they are ego-less. According to Errea, “Design should never be the star. We only provide the tools for newspapers to tell stories of greater interest and reach. We aren’t artists.” Cases agrees, saying “Design is never an end in itself. It is a means to convey comprehensive information to the customer without being intrusive or overbearing.”
Mario Garcia, a true graphic chameleon and a Society for News Design Lifetime Achievement Award winner, pioneered the WED philosophy, where writing, editing, and design play equally important roles to make sure “that content always takes precedence over designing and aesthetics. With mobile visual storytelling, its relevance has never been greater.”
Mobile storytelling, especially visually driven mobile content, is about a lot more than just responsive design (although that bugbear is examined at length), so to get a better sense of just how the world’s media leaders are bringing engaging stories to every conceivable platform, Newspaper Design opens the hood and examines all the moving parts (the front page, special sections, design and layout, editorial flow, digital narratives, print-only specials, weekly supplements, the use of typography, photography, and the evolving business strategy) of 10 top papers: the New York Times, Libération, Jornal i, El Mundo, Dagens Nyheter, Die Welt, National Post, the Guardian, La Repubblica, and La Nación.
While industry insiders have been tracking how news outlets respond to the changing tastes and technologies since newspapers were born in 1860, the public didn’t seem to sit up and take notice until the New York Times’ Innovation Report was leaked in 2014. Ultimately, it spurred the paper to invest in new means of distributing its content to readers and now, just four years later, the behemoth (with more readers than any other newspaper, garnering 200 million unique users each month, and 3 million subscribers across print and digital) is now a decidedly digital-first publication. To reach its next big goal of a $800 million annual income by 2020, the Times has put visual journalism first. To put that in perspective, in 2016 only 12% of the paper’s stories contained a visual component; it aims to hit 50% ASAP, which means not just more visual experts on staff, but more designers in leadership positions, too.
Where most papers cite a lack of, or opposition to, innovation from within, the Times is remarkably nimble and forward-looking for a company of its size. Readers will have noticed, for example, that the language and tone of voice at the paper has changed over the years along with the changes in format. Many visually led narratives naturally lend themselves to a more conversational, less “old school hard facts reporter” style of writing.
This has been happening gradually over the past 40 years, not just the past four, starting back in the ’70s under the celebrated leadership of art director Louis Silverstein. He broke with many norms, pioneering a number of design changes, including: publishing headlines in large type, increasing the font size of the copy, adding more white space to the page layout, rethinking the whole front page grid, using data graphics, and expanding the opinion section to an Op-Ed page that soon spread throughout the rest of the paper, most recently with the Op-Docs, produced by the Times’ video department. Much of his visual changes are actually hallmarks of good magazine design, like large-format illustrations, photographs, and large section indicators. Massimo Vignelli was a fan, saying “we are indebted to him for improving the quality of our lives.”
The use of data graphics that Silverstein introduced is one of his most notable legacies. In the following decades, data graphics would go from a service-oriented to a narrative-driven department, offering readers a more human side to news reporting, as with “Welcome to the New World,” a comic that told the true story of a Syrian family fleeing for the U.S. And of course, “Snow Fall,” which quickly reached cult status for its visionary approach to digital storytelling.
One of the paper’s biggest champions of new narrative formats is Amanda Cox, who started as an intern at the Times in 2005, and later became known for her ability to “manage superhuman quantities of data.” Now she’s the editor of The Upshot, a dataviz journalism project that’s “responsible for some of the most innovative work the Times has done,” says Dean Baquet, the executive editor. And this is saying nothing of its venture into VR, AR, 360-video, and social media-first storytelling. It’s experimenting widely because, as Baquet says, “We don’t know exactly how all of this will play out in the future. I wouldn’t assume that we’ll be scrolling with a mouse forever.”
Going even further is Die Welt, which went digital-first even earlier, in 2012, the same year it introduced Germany’s first paywall, marking a move towards reaching a more liberal and global reader than the conservative daily was initially set up to satisfy. Three years later the publisher acquired news station N24, which it merged with the Welt newsroom, but it would take another three years for the simple, understated branding by Edenspiekermann to be completely rolled out over all its holdings. Instead of releasing a totally new look and feel overnight, various platforms were slowly updated over time, bringing even the most change-resistant readers on board.
With a centralized news team, Welt can report on news quickly and adapt its stories to any (or all) of its many platforms. “We have experts for print, digital, and television within our team. When something happens, we have the opportunity to streamline it for all channels. The story in question decides the format,” says editor-in-chief Ulf Poschardt. If the idea of completely restructuring a news team sounds complicated, that’s because it is. It’s about much more than just rearranging the desks; it’s an apt prediction of the stories the team will create together.
“In order to redesign a newspaper, first the editors need to be redesigned,” said designer Robert Lockwood, the first president of the SND, who in 1978 redesigned The Morning Call, a Pennsylvania paper that has been described as “one of the most innovative projects ever seen in modern journalism.” When Lockwood later helped relaunch it in 1990, he did in tandem with a redesign of the newsroom itself. There was a large table in the center of the room for distribution and coordinating the paper’s various sections, which spiraled radially around it. It was called “the newsroom of the future,” and set the stage for every media outlet that came after.
“Owners, publishers, journalists, and designers have to understand the relationship that exists between the way an organization is run and the resulting product. Creative design is only possible in an organization that has been designed creatively; publishers are the true journalistic designers,” he concluded.
This was just two years after Lockwood and 21 other industry leaders met at a seminar called “Newspaper Design 2000 and Beyond,” held to anticipate the future of media. Among their assertions were that technology would change everything, that the news staff would take on the majority of production themselves, and that the leading edge of of journalism would be highly visual. The only problem was a lack of visual journalists. While there are many more visually-minded people working in newspapers and media today, with technology still changing all the damn time and taking the form of ever more of our daily habits, more designers are needed, both working in tandem with reporters as well as at the C-suite. And as more publishers seek to connect with their readers on a hyper-local or hyper-personal level, they need people who understand how to understand and empathize with the end user.