The USA-Todaying of newspapers

The Chicago Tribune has become the latest newspaper to unveil a dramatic redesign, which emphasizes dramatic visual elements instead of boring words (the News Designer blog has more).

Sans-serif type, drop shadows, giant cutout clip art overlapping adjacent elements, words over photos, columnist headshots everywhere, and little one-paragraph snippets of text where there were once articles.

The result makes these newspapers look much more like magazines, and conventional wisdom is that the more design-y these pages look, the more interesting they will become to readers.

But these new designs have two problems that you’d think would make them highly unpopular in an age of declining newspaper revenue and tightening budgets.

First, they take up more space, which means either more pages need to be added to the newspaper to fit the same amount of content (this isn’t happening – in fact many of these redesigns are done in order to fit a reduced page size), or dramatically cutting the amount of content that goes into the paper. Where a copy editor’s instinct is to cram as much information as possible onto the page, the designer’s is to waste as much space as possible to make it visually attractive. And it looks like the designers are winning.

Second, these things are complicated, which means design staff have to essentially be laying out all these pages, and in the case of sports they have to keep working late into the night. Where newspapers are shrinking budgets, this increase in staff hours will have to be offset by a drop in the number of copy editors or reporters. It makes me wonder how long these dramatic designs will stay dramatic before we start seeing cookie-cutter default designs used everywhere to save time.

Don’t get me wrong, I love good design. I think far too few stories are told using charts, maps or illustrations, in many cases where they are desperately needed. One of my pet peeves is opinion poll stories, which include a couple of paragraphs of opinion from the pollster and then hundreds of words trying (and failing) to translate a table of numbers into prose. Whenever I can, I try to convert those back into tables, which are easier to read and easier to analyze.

But I look at newspapers like Metro, which has coloured boxes with numbers all over the place, tied to articles that have only a handful of sentences to them. I wonder, looking at this: At what point does substance throw in the white towel against the towering forces of style?

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