A City in Your Hands

Last time, we wrote about how the place in which a newspaper is put together – the newsroom – can influence the look, feel, sound, artfulness and even success of that newspaper, and that the current changes in newsrooms, and moves to new digs, might help account for or contribute to the medium’s general decline, at least here in the U.S.

But, there’s another thing we’ve been thinking about that has to do with newspapers and their future, and that has to do with the way newspapers look.

Obviously, the way a newspaper looks is important. Many millions of dollars are paid each year to high-priced designers and consultants to make newspapers more appealing to the eye. These professionals tinker with typefaces and white space, column width and story length, all towards making the product a clean and easy read, with the hoped-for result that this rehabbing will improve circulation and/or attract advertisers – and, all the while, restricted by the limits imposed by newspapers having to look like newspapers, having to be able to fit on and be run off on a printing press that can’t easily be customized, and requiring a limited universe of paper type to be its medium.

Too often, though, these designers shoehorn all newspapers into a one-size-fits-all construct, overlaying the project with a look that they prefer or are identified with, imposing the same typeface, structure and attitude to every newspaper they are hired to “fix.” There are, at any given time, certain rules of modernity that these designers cling to and proselytize about, and, soon, newspapers everywhere look like newspapers everywhere else, becoming the Holiday Inns or McDonald’s of the print medium; that is, they are cookie-cutter versions of each other, without individuality outside the masthead,  with the idea that that sort of conformity engenders a kind of comfortable familiarity that also boosts ease of navigability. It’s all about the ego of the designer and his certainty about the superiority of the current (or, rather, his current) favorite user interface.

These artistic attempts, though, aren’t working, at least not in the most important way – saving the newspapers from extinction by attracting more readers and keeping them “under the tent” – and, so, quite often seem like just some bit of graphical snake oil. Of course, no design, however wonderful, can overcome boring content poorly written, and flawed editorial direction. And such small portions: No design can hide the fact that misguided layoffs by management “geniuses” who believe that the way to a better bottom line is by slicing employees and filling pages with wire-service offerings, which leaves little or nothing to read. Ergo, lots of white space to fool the reader into thinking that she is getting just as much news as she used to for the higher per-copy fee she has to shell out in order to come into possession of an anorexic, anemic impostor of the newspaper she used to love to hold.

But there is another underlying problem, we think – indeed, a placeness-influenced problem – that may be at the root of the design and circulation-spiral “fail.”

Here’s what the newspaper I work for, and which is struggling to keep readers, looks like now:

And here’s what it looked like a generation ago, when it was a popular newsstand item:

The first difference, and one that you can’t see easily from these photos, is the page size: the old version was much bigger – inches larger on each side. This partly – but only partly – explains the second difference that is far easier to note: the number of stories in each version. The old newspaper’s pages are loaded with stories – in fact, on these two inside facing pages, 20 of them, including stand-alone photos – while the current version has maybe two stories and a photo on each. This is both a function of changing design ideas, but also reflects the sad reality that there are more stories on those old pages than there are reporters in our newsroom today. Not all of the stories were staff written, but many were. Today, we don’t have the luxury – or the people-power – to produce that many stories. Of course, now as then, there was wire-service copy available, and pages were and are filled with that readily accessible fodder. The point was, back then, that a good chunk of the mission of a newspaper was to give people lots to read for their dime (yes, it cost ten cents), with oodles of variety, and with what Paul Dacre, the editor of London’s Daily Mail, calls  the “human twiddly bits that make for conversations in the pubs.” So much of that fascinating, readable, quotable, water-cooler-ish type of story that made newspapers newspapers is gone these days. Some of that is because of changing attitudes in the newspaper business about what news is (although, when you look at what the Internet portal sites consider news, you realize that nobody ever lost money underestimating Americans’ level of sophistication), some because of changing layout considerations – but some because of a backlash against anything that isn’t “hyper-local.”

And yet, despite this feverish trend that sees the offering of a preponderance of local news as the key to survival – ceding breaking news and national and international reports to the ‘Net, radio or video media – the physical newspapers themselves do not look local; that is, they do not look like where they’re from. And that is a key component of readers’ alienation with the product – a newspaper, we believe, ought to look like the town it’s reporting about. But, as similar, clean and white-spaced designs become the standard look-and-feel of the printed news medium everywhere, the “nowhere-ness” of them will, we think, doom the newspaper. It’s not even just a matter of “face recognition” – that the newspaper you read has a different layout or typeface than the competition; it’s that the product you hold in your hands does not accurately reflect the place it purportedly represents … and it should.

Take the New York Times, for example – it looks like Manhattan, or at least the Manhattan of its readers’ imagination, the Central Park West Manhattan, with its glorious old buildings interspersed with modern skyscrapers, and a peppering of people and tiny swaths of color and greenspace.  Then look at the New York Daily News – also New York, but not the same New York; this is the messy, teeming, crowded, slightly out-of-control New York, and the New York that includes all five boroughs. Each is New York, or, rather, the New York that its readers identify with. And each of these papers is successful because they not only speak to their publics but, in a way, also hold up a mirror to them, and make the readers feel that they are holding their city in their hands. Newsday, though a fine paper, and a tabloid (which would normally appeal to city dwellers and public-transportation riders), never quite gained a foothold when it introduced its New York Newsday because it still looked like Long Island.

More to the point at hand, look at the two versions of the paper I work for. The old format looks like the place it came out of: a congested, gray, gritty urban place, with lots happening in it.

The city itself is no less busy or crowded these days, yet the current paper looks far more homogenized and lacking a distinctive personality: a placeness. 

Big city newspapers are dying because they have been made to look like the wrong place – they look like the suburbs and not the metropolis. Just as one-size-fits-all does not work in the design of papers, there is no one-city-fits-all, either. Each city, each town has its own personality, and the newspaper of that town should have that same personality or, in the case of competing papers with different circulation publics, the personality that fits that population cohort.

What differentiates a newspaper from, say, a web-based news site is that there is, when it is working properly, a personal relationship between the newspaper and its reader that is, in a way, akin to the relationship that sports fans have with their home teams. Teams are composed of many different elements (the athletes) from many parts of the world, but they come together and wear a unique and identifiable uniform, with cherished logos and colors, that fans recognize as mirroring themselves, in some strange empathetic sort of way. Newspapers must never forget that they are the home team, and should dress the part.

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