August 10, 2008

Weathering the storm: Design's take on print journalism's decline

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News Editor Ben Eisen’s ’10 recent post on the survival of print journalism in The Sun’s From the Editors blog represents a huge concern flowing through the newspaper industry right now: can print survive alongside web based news. His post went one step beyond this, asking if the new web paradigm of rapid, “organic” news will supplant the reporter on the street, working for a highly visible, century-old institution, with hard bought credentials and high standards of unbiased, in-depth, grammatically correct reporting (the “grammatically correct” might seem a bit frivolous, until you realize that nine out of 10 SAT study guides recommend reading a national newspaper to prepare for the verbal and writing exams- thus newspapers appear to be the bastions of proper grammar).
As a page designer by night, and a physicist by day, I tend to focus less on the philosophic and more on the tangible. So let’s breakdown the advantages and disadvantages of print journalism, through the eyes of a designer:
It’s true that a blog can break a story faster than The New York Times could ever hope to start up their printing presses, run off millions of copies, and ship them around the planet. It’s also true that on a website, 400 people can respond within an hour to Frank Rich’s latest Clinton-bashing/Obama-touting column, while in print, you’d be lucky to see just 10 letters to the editor, a full 24 hours after the piece was first published. A newspaper is further limited by size constraints: we can only print as many pages as our advertisers are willing to publish on.
We can also only print color on the front and back pages, and a few where color advertisements appear. Graphics can’t move and undulate, an electoral map cannot switch statistical parameters at the click of a mouse, and you can’t sift through a lovely interactive graphic of the past 40 Olympic torches. Slide shows of a dozen high-resolution, full-color photos on the web translate into a single, hastily printed, front page photo on the order of a few inches in size.
In print, you can’t switch browser settings to change your font size for strained eyes, and you can’t shoot an interesting article off to e-mail at the click of a button… all this sounds as if we print designers should just shutdown Quark and InDesign and go learn about CSS and JavaScript. Well, not so fast… this is one designer who begs to differ!

Okay, so maybe the physicist will dabble in philosophy for just one second. We live in a society strained by poor community connections, anti-social tendencies, and high rates of mental illness. The internet (with its anonymous friendships and insular communities, all viewed on screens designed to shield their contents from the guy sitting next to you) only exacerbates this problem.
I want a newspaper I can hold in my hand, so I can violently thrust the latest Shannon Scarsaletta ’09 article under the nose of my classmate and say “See, I’m not the only one who does embarrassing things at frat parties!” I want to be able to spread a two-page photo truck about slope day out onto a table in our dorm’s common room, so that me and a dozen of my friends can spot people we know and laugh about the day’s festivities. I want to be able to be able to take a Sun candid of my lab partner getting pelted by a snow ball, cut it out (using scissors, not CTRL-X ), and stick it on the side of my oscilloscope, so that everyone in circuit’s lab knows of this humiliating ordeal.
Eisen postulated that college papers and local publications may well be shielded from the decline in print media. It seems a bit too much of a coincidence that colleges, the last great refuge of the tight-knit community, seem to be the only places that still appreciate good ol’ fashioned print news.

Design-wise, the print publication can be superior to on-line content in many respects. A typical website has an 800 pixel span within which to work. In that space it needs to fit giant distracting advertisements with flashy, moving parts, endless links to different parts of the site, and… oh yeah… the content itself. Print publications, though constrained in total size, enjoy a far broader canvas upon which to paint. Upon the 11×17 front page of our beautiful Sun, only the paper’s name, date, and volume number distract from the content we wish to share with our community.
A website is typically hard wired into a certain design. Though The New York Times can break it’s rigid site design to span breaking news on Russia invading Georgia across about 400 pixels of space, this pales in comparison to its traditional triple-decker screaming headlines stretching across the whole page on historic days like December 7, 1941 or September 11, 2001. Front pages during events like VE Day and the sinking of the Titanic are visually cemented in the minds of millions of Americans.
With photo sizes and typography, the dynamic range of websites is severely constrained. A 50-pt headline would look ridiculous if it only had 800 pixels upon which to spread its wings. Even on The Sun’s tabloid size paper large important headlines, like the death of Kurt Vonnegut ’44, could call out to those of interest. Everything from the 3-inch news brief to the full page breaking news can appear on one sheet of paper, clearly organized in a hierarchy of importance by editors who live and breath the events of the University.
Graphics cannot be interactive in print, but they can sure be visually stunning. The Times continually impresses with large infographics filling entire half pages of the Week in Review or Sports sections.
There’s also a creative, human element to page design that many websites lack. We have two or three dedicated staffers (including yours truly) in the newsroom each and every night to place stories on the page. If something like Slope Day is appearing on the front page, traditional rules of page design may be thrown out the window, as we place skewed photographs disguised as faux-polaroids on the page, with drop shadows, which appear to burst out of the box within which the article sits.

The Sun understands that surviving means adapting. We’re pushing more dynamic content, better tuned to our audience. Eclipse, under Design Editor Carol Zou’s ’09 great new redesign will be a smaller-format magazine with light features and a fresh new look. Arts and Entertainment, under Senior Editor Sammy Perlmutter ’10 is also receiving a fresh new look. And our department as a whole continues to make pages as fresh and lively as possible to bring you stories and in-depth reporting the blogosphere can’t, using factual sources, live interviews, and secret Board of Trustees documents stolen from Statler trash bins. It’s gonna be a great year folks!

Looking around Ivy Room or Trillium, The Sun has a huge presence in the lives of Cornellians. The paper is passed from one diner to the next. With a smiling face, a varsity basketball player pulls the sports section out of the paper, and hands the Arts and Entertainment section to a Risley-ite studying English. A political scientist glances over the shoulder of a CS major reading opinion— one searching for campus politics, the other reading up on optimized queries. Not bad for 6000 square inches of recycled paper.