Friday, June 15, 2012

Are Newspapers Over-Designed?

Aside from buying a Wall Street Journal two or three days a week, flipping through a free USA Today from the hotel when traveling and barely glancing at the local paper each morning (until football season, when I hit the sports page harder), I spend a lot less time reading newspapers than I used to. Years ago, I was so into newspapers that I had the New York edition of the New York Times mailed to me daily.

Nowadays I mostly rely on the internet for news, avoiding television almost entirely. Obviously, I'm not alone in this. Newspaper circulation has been declining for many years in the USA, and so have ratings for the major broadcast network news programs.

Newspapers have been fighting the trend, but declining circulation has yielded declining advertising revenue. Fewer ads means smaller papers as publishers try to maintain a profitable advertising - news hole page relationship.

There's another thing newspapers are doing that has annoyed me for several years. I'm writing about it now thanks to this item on James Lileks' blog. Besides blogging, Lileks is a columnist at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and writes books on the side.

Here is what he said:

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I think a lot about newspapers every day, partly because I work for one, partly because I’m revising a novel set in the glory days of a medium-sized newspaper in a medium-sized metropolitan era that has four. Four papers. I invented one for the books, the Citizen-Herald; it’s obviously not the Star-Tribune, since that exists in the books as well. When I think what the pages of the Citizen-Herald might have looked like, I realize one of the things that did papers in:

Good design.

Or rather, design, period. Big headlines, explanatory decks, good pictures, careful layout, splashy graphics - everything that presents the content takes away from the content. If you have a thick news hole and you’re putting out a tab with 60 pages, chock full of ads, you have the luxury to play, to stretch, to impress. But the model for the Citizen-Herald is the old Star newspaper in the 30s and 40s, a wide-swinging scrappy trolley-reader broadsheet that captured the jostle and bustle of the town in almost molecular detail. Eight to ten stories on the front page, at least. Twice as much on the inside. Sure, half of it was inconsequential - chatter and trivia, minor mayhem on the road next to a squib about an election in Malay, but it presented the impression of a world so vibrant it could barely be contained in the thin columns of newsprint. A good newspaper isn’t one you read front to back; a good newspaper is one you regret you didn’t read front to back, because it’s simply impossible to read it all.

The Star was like that - the big stories at the top of the page, pictures of giveaway kittens or a kid in a cast because he fell off a roof, Loop shootings, auto wrecks on the parkway, holdup in a cafe, each story getting smaller as you went down the page, until the bottom items were a two-line piece on Siamese imports, and an ad for Sanitary Bread.

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An example front page is below.

The design feature that bothers me the most is increased use of large, color photographs on the front page (the example above is smaller than many I've seen). To me, it's a waste of space that could be devoted to news.

Like Likeks, I am so old-fashioned!

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