Off Message March 2007

Look Sharp

Newspapers are run by people who care a lot about words and very little about design.
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Whoa, what a beautiful newspaper! Has that thought ever crossed your mind? Well, there really are some lookers out there. Sometimes it's hard to notice them because, like Marilyn Munster, they're surrounded by hideous freaks. Why are so many newspapers so ugly? Because they are run by people who care a lot about words and very little about visuals and design. And, man, it shows in the product.

The Society for News Design, an international group based in Syracuse, N.Y., recently announced the winners of its annual awards for the world's best-designed newspapers. The good news is that the four champs really are head-turners. The bad news is that they are all from outside the United States. In fact, they're all European: published in Estonia, Spain, Germany, and Denmark. Having checked out sample front pages on the society's Web site (snd.org), I'm partial to the Spanish paper, El Economista, which reminds me of another good-looking Spaniard I've ogled repeatedly, the Madrid daily El Pais.

In an interview posted on CJRDaily.com, a Web site run by the Columbia Journalism Review, Gal Beckerman asked the president of the society, Scott Goldman, why no American papers won. His answer: "For the last few years, we've seen that the true innovation in newspaper design is happening outside this country.... Most American papers are cutting at all costs, and then sitting back and wondering why advertisers and the readers aren't coming."

That seems a tad unfair. The Wall Street Journal's recent redesign not only looks great, it has also made the paper feel a lot more logical and friendly. And, let's face it, when U.S. newspapers are doling out cash these days (those that still have any), the design money is likely to go online, where all the ferment is. In fact, the society has separate awards for the Web.

Still, Goldman has his finger on a real problem. Most American papers look as if they've stopped caring and are just going through the motions. And it's a really bad time for newspapers to look bad. First, they are losing audience like crazy. Second, Americans have gotten more sophisticated about design, thanks in part to This Old House, Martha Stewart, and all those home-makeover TV shows. Apple Computer has also made consumers more aware of design, as has cellphone fashion. The pages of MySpace are a mass festival of self-expression through design.

I can't prove this, but I think one of the reasons that blogs became so popular so quickly was just that they looked totally different from the usual media fare. A lot of bloggers clearly care about the look of their product and tweak it often.

In short, design awareness runs very high in the culture, and newspapers are not passing muster. Cartoonist Daryl Cagle this week posted on his blog (cagle.com/news /blog/) a withering critique of the way the Los Angeles Times handles its fonts, complete with an annotated front page. He writes: "Every first-year design student knows that it is bad form to mix too many fonts. Beginners who get their hands on a computer for the first time are usually fascinated by fonts, and produce documents that look like ransom notes.

If your church newsletter looks like a ransom note, you can be sure that it was designed by the pastor's sister-in-law on her new Macintosh. So it is with the Times' front page."

Like beautiful people, beautiful newspapers get some slack just for looking good. Even when the journalism drags, you don't mind having them around. I've always liked to look at the National Post, the Canadian daily that flouts many conventions of broadsheet design. For example, the front page will prominently feature an opinion columnist and sometimes a big cartoon. Lately, following the news about Conrad Black, the embattled mogul whose former company started the Post, and who is now on trial in Chicago for fraud, racketeering, and other crimes, I feel a little pang of sympathy. Black no longer controls the Post, and maybe he's a bad man. But still, he gave us one of North America's more attractive media creatures. If found guilty, Black could get up to 101 years in prison. I say make it 99—two years off for good design.

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William Powers is a columnist for National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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