Intelligent Design

Newspapers are at a critical juncture. Doomsayers cite their growing irrelevance, while designers call for innovation. The medium’s fate hangs in the balance.



written by JEFF LEWIS


Everyone knows a facelift is at best a temporary fix. With newspapers, it’s much the same. “Cosmetic facelifts cannot help much,” says Dr. Mario Garcia, of Garcia Media, a design company based in Tampa, FL.

“It’s all about content, about deciding on the path of a story and what medium covers [it] at every step, from mobile telephone to online to print and back to online.”

Welcome to the new face of newspaper design. Only, if you’re asking Garcia, it isn’t really about design at all. “I don’t call these projects redesigns anymore,” he points out. “I prefer the term rethinking.”

At Garcia Media, what’s being rethought is the way newspapers are conceived. The company consults papers – more than 500 to date – on design and content strategy, and on how best to integrate print with emerging online and mobile platforms.

It’s an interesting role in changing times, the 61-year-old says, one that has, on occasion, put him at odds with salty editors. “You still have a lot of editors who will tell you, ‘I’m a newspaperman and I work for a newspaper company,’” he says.

“We really tell these people, you’re not a newspaper company, you’re a media company,” he stresses. “And your job of storytelling is the same as it was 100 years ago except you have more media platforms to tell those stories.”

Negotiating the changing face of print is no easy task. Bullish editors – get them in a therapeutic environment, Garcia advises – are one thing. Designing a paper for today’s hurried reader is quite another.

“They’re impatient people,” Garcia notes. “And they’re hungry for information.” It’s why he thinks newspapers in the not-so-distant future will be smaller in format and contain fewer words, similar to the tabloids already filling European newsstands. “Bites that people can take and complete and feel good about it,” he says.

It’s an idea that may be catching on. In March 2008 The New York Times unveiled a reformatted front-section. The new look introduced a two-page summary of daily news that doubled as a table of contents. Articles of any significant length don’t appear until the international report, on pages four and five.

“The purpose of the paper really hasn’t changed,” explains Tom Bodkin, assistant managing editor of the art and feature department. “Its basic intent — explain and convey news – it’s still the same. We hope these changes just make it easier.”

The cosmetic lift stems, in part, from readers’ complaints. Bodkin says the staff heard people were repeatedly missing “good stuff” in the paper. As a remedy, the new look aimed to bring the pacing and style of a magazine to the paper’s first few pages. 

“This gives you a way to get an overview both of the newspaper that day and of the important news of the day in a compact space,” Bodkin elaborates.

That the wants and needs of readers are registering at all perhaps marks a sea change in the way newspapers are put together.

“A lot of papers for a long time ignored their readership,” says Jim Poling, managing editor at the Hamilton Spectator. “They employed practices that were counter-intuitive to good journalism and good reading habits.”

At the Spec, which reformatted its weekend edition in February, there is a concerted effort to be seen as a “reader-centric” newspaper, Poling says.

That might mean writing shorter, tightly focused stories. But it could also entail writing upwards of 170,000 words for any given article.

“What people need to realize with newspapers is there is no single magic bullet,” Poling says. “You have to employ a number of strategies. Our readers are more fractured than they’ve ever been.”

One of those strategies involves tailoring content to suit online platforms. As Poling puts it, “the way a 76-year-old reads the paper is different than how a 16-year-old [does].”

Yet if there is a notable absence of beacons lighting the way forward for newspapers in this digital era, it may have something to do with the scope of change affecting the medium.

It’s what former Globe and Mail editor-turned-entrepreneur Richard Addis likens to the biggest shift in media since printing presses were invented.

“Obviously the necessity to pick up a newspaper is no longer there,” he says from the London offices of Shakeup Media, a news design agency he founded in 2007. “There’s so many other choices, so newspapers have to get better.”

It’s a tall, if somewhat ambiguous, order. But that may be the point. “There’s a million different ways of doing print,” Addis says.

He takes issue, however, with the unbridled enthusiasm given over to emerging technologies. It’s superficial, he says, and ignores the fact that content suits some forms better than others.

For the Financial Times, which Shakeup re-designed in 2007, that means a text-heavy presentation. Its readers can handle the heavy load, Addis says. “They’ve got the time and they require it.”

The same isn’t necessarily true for readers of London’s Daily Mail. It’s a brash, mass-market tabloid with “a very little bit of text and lots of graphics, headlines and photographs,” Addis observes.

It aims to achieve a certain amount of shock and sensation with its presentation. That in turn plays out in everything from its size right down to its typography.

Given those nuances, it’s too simple to think that, as a publisher, you’ve got to reinvent yourself exclusively on the Internet. “In fact,” Addis says, “it’s kind of slightly mad.”

“I would never go to a newspaper publisher and say basically try and get out of print as quick as possible and make yourself a purely digital company.”

But at the Globe and Mail offices on Front Street in Toronto, deputy managing editor of presentation and design Michael Bird says the key is nonetheless developing a paper that’s reflective of the Internet age.

The Globe is very conscious of respecting readers’ time, he notes. It means fewer longer narratives and an increased emphasis on visual storytelling.

“We pick our shots with long form and have a variety of different lengths and textures,” Bird says. “We try to do as much visual storytelling as we can just to make the report that much more rich and accessible.”

It’s a technique Robb Montgomery associates with the iPod. Just as the device made its technology an afterthought, Montgomery, a former visual editor at the Chicago-Sun Times turned design consultant, says newspapers must work at bettering the user experience.

“That’s what we need to do when we’re redesigning papers or even just packaging stories,” he says from Cairo, Egypt, where he was running a two-day seminar on visual editing and design.

Back at Shakeup, in London, it’s what Addis calls breathable design – the seamless fusion of form and function. It’s something he says newspapers are a long way from getting absolutely right.

 And the stakes couldn’t be higher. It’s the difference between surviving the next 20 years or going under, Addis contends.

“People who are doing a good job on design are sensible,” he says. “They’re going to survive.”