Fifty new faces greeted me today in my Editing and Design class. It’s the start of the fall semester at our campus, and it’s just a matter of time before I get that question again. Very soon, one of the future reporters in the class will gather the nerve to ask me the big question – Why, oh why, would a reporter ever have to know the slightest thing about newspaper design? “I can understand why we take style quizzes,” the reporter will say. “I can even see why we have to study the damned grammar. “But why design? I’ll never design a page. I’m a writer. A reporter.” Good question. Obviously, this is a reporter with a bright future. My response? “Because good content deserves good presentation,” I’ll say. “A design is only as strong as its content. You report and write a great story. You illustrate that story with strong photojournalism. You build an informational graphic with helpful background. “Don’t you want readers to engage in that great content?” The conversation is hypothetical, but it’s built from a dozen years of teaching design to non-designers. Journalists of all stripes should care about news presentation, but it’s difficult for the word people to relate to the design people – all those folks dressed in black, tucked into a secluded corner of the newsroom. Yes, I occasionally wear black, and I actually relate to people on both sides of the fence. I’m a former high-school English teacher who’s also a self-taught designer. I’ve spent 16 years advising collegiate newspaper staffs and teaching editing and design. I’ve done more than my share of removing the mystery of newspaper design for journalists who don’t necessarily care about it. What have I learned? Content drives design. A design is only as good as its content. Content comes from compelling photojournalism, from informative news stories and from self-explanatory graphics. News designers are journalists. They must understand news judgment – and apply it. They must comprehend the day’s news and prioritize it for readers with size and shape. It’s very important for designers, as journalists, to participate in story-planning sessions. They must be advocates for readers. Tell the story the best way. We have many tools in our newspaper arsenal. From briefs to in-depth series, from spot-news photos to portraits, from lists of names to illustrated informational graphics – journalists match the format to the information to tell the story in the best way. Sometimes, a photo carries the load. Another time, an in-depth investigative story is the way to go. Run good photos big. Compelling images engage readers first. Strong photojournalism and illustrations are the building blocks of news design. That’s true even when the primary workhorse is text. When a long, in-depth story blesses you, give it a compelling introductory photo to engage readers in it from the start. Plan before you design. If content drives design, then designers should step up to the plate and help plan the content, at least for the important packages. I’m none too sympathetic to a designer who whines about having no content on deadline. Package related material. Lend readers a hand. Put related components in the same place. Understand how readers use newspapers. Some readers spend a half hour with the paper. Others spend five minutes. Strong news design indexes information to help all types of readers. Reporters may never have to design a page. Designers may never have to write a story. But they should. If we want to serve readers, a little understanding will go a long way.
Ron Johnson advises the student journalists who produce the Kansas State Collegian daily newspaper. He teaches editing and design, and he’s the Society for News Design’s education co-director. An example of the tips he shares in this story can be found in this PDF file