kimberley crofts

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an information and communication designer living in London

Reading the Times: the good and the bad (mostly bad)

Today I bought the Times as there were no Guardians left at the shop. I don’t buy printed newspapers much as they are mostly full of useless information that’s poorly spell checked and too dominated by celebrities.

Two of the lowlights today from the Times (not related to celebrities):

  • Green nail polish from Chanel is selling for £80 on ebay. This was on the front page, seriously.
  • Gordon Brown has a network of helpers including someone who is a chairmaqn – I didn’t know that word had a silent Q, but there you go (page 32).

That last pearler was from an infographic (download it here) squeezed into a tiny space at the top of the page between the ad and the story. I can partly sympathise with the ‘visual journalist’ charged with creating it. I imagine they were given the brief with about 10 minutes until deadline so there would have been little time for them to spell check (a task usually left for sub-editors but they have probably all been retrenched). I can also partly sympathise with them as I imagine the briefing process probably went something like this:

EDITOR: Can you quickly do a graphic to tart up this story?
VISUAL JOURNALIST: What’s the story about?
E: Not really sure, they haven’t finished writing it yet. But does it really matter? Just put all these names in it and then link them together somehow.
VJ: But that doesn’t actually explain anything
E: Why does it matter? Graphics are just there to make the page look pretty.

Part of the offending graphic

In my previous career as an editorial design consultant I often saw how underrated visual journalists are in newsrooms (other than at the New York Times where I have heard that there are around 22 of them). Their skills are often seen as secondary to that of word journalists and they are not given anywhere near enough time and resources to properly craft their graphics.

Good infographics take time to create. Good infographics explain and offer insight. They can support the story, or they can stand-alone. They should make sense, or they should not be used. They are journalism, not decoration. The Times needs to do better.

Lest you think I am being one-sided, there are many visual journalists out there who do not deserve the title. Just because someone is good at using Illustrator doesn’t mean they can tell a story visually.

If you are wondering what the good bits were from the Times today they were the story about a Royal Commission report that recommends traffic lights be switched off to save energy and stop light pollution (page 36), and a story about how the charity Fine Cell Work teaches needlework to prison inmates so that they can learn new skills and earn an income to help support them when they get out of gaol (page 40).

Filed under: editorial, infographics, newspapers, , , ,

‘Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism’

So says Clay Shirky in a long post comparing the current transition period from print to internet to that of the period just after Gutenberg developed his printing press. Shirky uses examples from Elisabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change to illustrate how the results of such a chaotic transition are impossible to predict, but that what needs to be done is to experiment wildly and value the core essence of what a newspaper is about—good journalism.

What Eisenstein says in her book (read as part of my recent dissertation) is that problems occur when there is a change in the primary means of communication technology within society. These problems continue until the technology matures. This has occurred in the change from oral discourse to written language; from the manuscript to the printed book; and from the newspaper to the website.

Eisenstein proposes that the complications arise because a new technology is being used at a time when old consumption methods are still dominant. For example, the exquisite hand-rendered illuminations of manuscript books were not easy to replicate in print. In order to satisfy the reader who had become accustomed to beautifully illustrated books, printers were forced to either add illustrations by hand after printing or resort to crude woodblock prints. Both methods were unsatisfactory attempts at copying what had been perfected in an old technology. Just as is happening now with newspaper websites: they are working off old reading, consuming and production models that will not exist for much longer.

Who knows what the new journalism will look like, but to paraphrase Shirky, it will be important to savour those skills that society requires of its journalists: integrity, diligence, and a dogged determination to get stories out to the public that need to hear them.

Design and branding company iA have recently published the result of their failed pitch to redesign the print edition of Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger (thanks Swissmiss for the link). iA have more experience in online editorial design and wanted to bring some user experience methodology to the design of the print edition. For example, they wanted the reader to be able to scan articles more easily. They proposed that by using blue type for keywords would allow the user (reader) to more easily scan an article and then access more information based on searches of that keyword online.

blue

This is one example of a company experimenting wildly, as Shirky challenges us all to do. Yes, they failed in their pitch, but if newspaper design guru Mario Garcia was impressed, then this design team are one to watch in this transition period.

I would say that one problem with their design is that it was trying too hard to transfer something which is unique to the web—hyperlinking— to the very static print medium. Next time they should look to embracing what is good about the print newspaper: that it’s portable, adaptable, foldable, and very, very readable. Much more readable for long articles like Shirky’s than is the internet. I look forward to seeing what they do.

Filed under: newspapers, , , , ,

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