Saturday, August 25, 2007

NEWSPAPERS: Imagining how newspapers may look -- dramatic changes may come

POSTED: Aug. 23, 2007

By Lisa Snedeker
Media Life Magazine

Lisa Snedeker is a staff writer for Media Life. © 2007 Media Life Magazine

When readers think of their newspapers, one of the last things they think about is design. Newspapers are utilities, information delivery systems. Delivery systems need to work, not look pretty. Newspaper editors especially have stuck with that notion, resisting all but the most minor redesigns.
Suddenly, all this is changing. What's likely coming is a period of dramatic change in newspaper design. What will the local daily look like in five years? Nobody knows, but it could look radically different. We see hints of that already: Ads appear on cover pages, even front pages, and dailies including The New York Times are trimming their page widths. The barriers to change are falling.

What's driving it all is a rising dissatisfaction, an impatience, with the clunkiness of newspapers, their bulk, the difficulty of finding things, their lousy graphics, the clutter they create. "People are frustrated by newspapers," says Alan Jacobson, a longtime newspaper designer and founder of Brass Tacks Design of Norfolk, Va. "Itÿÿs gone from something that belonged on my couch to something that I am not happy with." Whatÿÿs driven that dissatisfaction is whatÿÿs driving so much of the turmoil in traditional media: the internet. With the rise of the internet, the notion of navigation, getting from one point to another within or between web sites, and doing so with ease, intuitively, came to the forefront of design. When people talked about internet design, they were really talking about navigation, design not as a look but as functionality. Sites that were hard to navigate lost traffic to sites that were easier to get around.

Internet designers were responding to a real demand. As the well of information expands, the need to create quick, clean ways to retrieve that information becomes more and more critical. These navigation pressures are being felt beyond newspapers, by magazines, by radio, and especially by television as more channels come on. Simply finding out whatÿÿs on at any moment has become a challenge. Fittingly, the icon of this new era of design, the ideal, is the iPhone, Jacobson says, and he believes it will guide the coming rethinking of how newspapers are designed.

ÿÿIn many ways, the iPhone represents what may be the best potential for the newspaper, which is something thatÿÿs very simple on the face but does an awful lot of stuff. Apple fixed the cell phone as we know it. They made it simple and easy to use. If newspapers are going to be successful, they are going to have to really simplify.ÿÿ That is, they need to become easier to use and to get around, more intuitive. Rather than flipping pages to find things, readers will be able to go right to them, or at least find them as quickly as they might find something on a web site. That could mean adding keys to the front page, or a full table of contents.

It could mean much smaller newspapers, smaller even than the tabloid format, making them easier to tuck into a purse or a briefcaseÿÿor under the sofa when company shows up unannounced. If the old format served the needs of publishers and advertisers, the new formats will first serve the needs of readers. It could also mean more ads on the front page, even above the fold. Newspaper editors think of ads as a necessary evil, design-wise, something to wrap stories around. But readers see ads as information on a par with editorial, and often as real news, in the case of ads touting huge, one-day-only sales. Smart publishers will be learning from their web sites, observing how people use them and how they navigate about as they add more and more features.

As in all things media-related, the driving force leading to experimentation and change will be economics. With circulations sinking and advertising revenues in decline, publishers are willing to consider changes that were beyond the imagination even a few years ago. The issue will be how aggressively they will act on them.

Lisa Snedeker is a staff writer for Media Life. © 2007 Media Life Magazine

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