Editors Nationwide weigh in on design
By Ed Henninger
What’s the state of design at community newspapers? To answer that question, I thought I’d seek the wisdom of those who are making community newspaper design happen. So I went to my best source: the more than 1,400 writers, editors, publishers, ad directors, production directors and designers who subscribe to my monthly Web column and weekly hints.
I asked them: “What do you think of the present state of design in community newspapers?”
The responses I received were, well, frank, to say the least. And well thought out.
Most have been edited for brevity. Some carry the name of the writer. All of them offer food for thought.
Here they are:
“Design—or lack of it—runs the gamut in the community newspapers I see.
Some appear to have no design at all and are clunked out by whoever owns the newspaper in the couple of hours he or she has between:
1. Selling ads.
2. Editing news releases.
3. Unstopping the sink.
4. Pacifying the lady whose daughter's name was misspelled.
These are the smaller papers working with limited staffs and advertiser support that deserve better from their communities than they're getting. At the other end of the spectrum are some thoughtfully-published newspapers with solid reporting, imaginative photography, provocative editorials and creative designs.
If there is one weakness I see constantly, in all newspapers, from the NY Times and Wall Street Journal to the smallest Mom & Pop produced in rural communities, it is this: The advertising sucks.
It is written, designed and sold by non-students of advertising who have no idea what makes compelling ad copy and seem to think star bursts are 21st Century inventions and that every single inch of white space must have type or a picture in it.
There, I hope I've pushed a few buttons. If we are going to survive, we must create, write and design advertising that will help keep our advertisers in business, too.”
“I often see a lot of cramming on the front page, sometimes with bumping photos that distract the eye. Also, headlines that are too small and too wordy—sometimes giving me the feeling I don't need to read the story, since all the info is in the headline. Many small papers still use rinky-dink fonts, too — the paper looks like a bad newsletter, or like someone typed it up in the garage!
On the plus side, I have noticed more community papers using rules and other elements to air out their pages. A few papers have taken the plunge to make their pages dynamic and exciting, often unconventional. But on the whole, I have to say that most community newspapers I see look amateurish and stodgy.”
“Speaking from my own experience with weekly community newspapers, most of them do not have the funds to train their editors to design and do not have designers to even build templates. I know I feel as if I’m in the dark ages of design. I’ve tried to loosen up my front page so it is a little more attractive and we’ve made a few changes inside on things such as standing heds, but for the most part, the inside doesn’t look good at all. We just cram stuff in to make it fit. Community newspapers need help in updating their looks to bring them into this century.”
“Design in community newspapers is near dead. The mind set is: slap it on the page and be done. There is no creativity, no thought, no sense of quality in presentation.”
“The design of community newspapers is generally the best it has ever been and rivals daily design. Clean formats, use of color, use of photos, quality of layout ... all have improved in many community papers. Of course there are some smaller papers still using layout styles from 20 years ago, but that is not the norm.”
William C. Rogers
S.C. Press Association
“I travel all over the country working with newspapers and see a lot a different situations. There is a theme: the papers I see that tend to pay attention to design are the ones that are more profitable. I don't know if it is the cause or the effect, but it definitely seem to be related.”
Jon S. Winters
“I think we have a handle on it. We have a top-notch production department and we all work together (editorial and production) to make the paper fit the needs of our community.”
“The design of the newspaper comes as an afterthought in relation to corporate, top-down directives regarding advertising percentages and other requirements (just tighten it up!). It has become a real challenge to include pertinent, relative information to our community in an aesthetically pleasing way with little to no room to be creative in our display. The information is specific and integral to the community but trying to make it look attention-grabbing to keep the reader buying your paper has become a real challenge.”
“Design in community newspapers is more erratic than ever. Some are extremely well designed, thanks to the evolution of newspaper design and its increasing importance in single-copy sales. Some are not so well designed, a result of belt tightening that puts people with little or no experience in charge of the face of your publication.
I also find that too many community newspapers look alike, probably because so many papers are now owned by so few companies. Just outside our market, there were two competing newspapers that couldn’t have looked more different. They’ve been bought up by a large company and, to cut costs, have one editor. Now, I imagine readers have a hard time telling them apart on the newsstand.”
“The overall design of community newspapers has greatly improved over the past several years. There is more color, papers are more modular and generally easier to read. I think design will continue to improve as computers and software become more affordable and available. The biggest drawback will then become the amount of time that publishers and editors have to put into their designs while balancing all of their other duties (reporting, editing, and in some cases, ad sales and design).”
“The current state of design is generally quite poor. I believe this to be so as most people at small operations are not designers and lack the skills necessary to design a great looking paper. I also believe that it’s difficult in small/rural areas to hire designers that have the skills necessary to design a great looking publication.”
“In general, community newspapers rely on static designs that worked great a decade ago (or two), and the layout became the easiest thing to do with few bodies and even less money. We don't like to take chances, because chances take time and sometimes cost us readers. Of course, not taking chances is also costing us readers, and in greater numbers.”
“It depends on what community newspapers are being considered. In Texas we have a few weeklies and semis that I'd put up against the larger dailies in our contest any day. But as a general rule I would say the design in most community papers sucks. It's non-existent, willy-nilly with no thought at all given to font choices, photo sizes, etc. I know they're small in size but that doesn't mean they have to think small.”
“Overall, the design of community newspapers is behind larger dailies and metros. This not because of a lack of talent but rather the fact that most of editors (especially at weeklies) are also the photographer, editorial page editor, sports editor, etc., and there isn't the time to put a lot effort into anything special when it comes to design.”
“My own community newspaper (The Bristol Press) may be typical. It was started by a family several generations ago and at some point, sold off to a publishing company, then resold a few other times. It has gone downhill ever since the first sell-off. Never mind the silly typos, stories that end mid-sentence and font problems. Page design is pretty much ignored except for the sports section, which is extensive for a small paper. Those pages actually look pretty good. But the rest of paper is awful, in my opinion. If I were to hazard a guess, those ultimately in charge couldn’t care less about the community being served by that particular newspaper.”
“As a whole, there is a tremendous lack of fresh design in community newspapers. A vast majority of the small papers are still using Arial headlines with Times body font and they are not well laid out. It's not always because the publishers or editors don't want to revamp their looks, but they just don't have the resources or the time. Good design is often easier to build than bad, for me, because once you get moving in the right direction it takes care of itself.”
“We are always trying to find the time to improve. Key word is TIME. There are some nice looking community papers. If only we had more time, more staff. I think in community newspapers we all run pretty tight staffs.”
“It's a mixed bag. Some places do it well, some not so well. Often poor design results from inexperienced writers being given the task with little or no training, guidelines or timely oversight. Often these individuals mean right, try hard, often get the design bug. But a lack of basics—and time—sometimes produces in mixed results.”
“I think it's atrocious but I don't think readers care.”
“The community newspapers I read seem blindly indifferent to the science and art of design. They've not trained designers to live up to the power desktop publishing has given them to take over their own design. Improved presses have given them tremendous potential, but they've done little to bring more harmoniously designed pages to the printer. Yet their audiences are increasingly sophisticated.”
“I think many community newspapers suffer from the lack of a design stylebook. Many layout people at small papers (often the editor, at 1 a.m.!) try to get by week to week without thinking through the design and documenting those design decisions so they can be applied consistently. That makes the layout job harder, results in bad layout decisions made “on the fly” and hurts the paper’s credibility by making it look jumbled and inconsistent.”
“Most community newspapers still aren't investing enough time and money in the design of their products. With the decline of the metros, community newspapers are in the unique position to help narrow the gap in resources and staff.
We're gaining on them like never before. Presentation, specifically front page design, can help change the (sometimes) negative perception of what smaller papers have to offer readers.
Community newspapers should devote more time to showcasing high quality photography, designing graphics, using more color throughout the paper and adding graphic elements such as icons, pull quotes and more. The present state of design in community newspapers ... is due for a redesign.”
“The level of design produced today is so far advanced over what was out there even five years ago. This is due to changing technology and greater sophistication in our readership. People want to be entertained and charmed by what is printed—not just informed.”
“The current state of design is rough—and getting rougher. Like everything else in the newspaper biz, good design is endangered by shaky economics—compounded by short-sighted decisions made in response to those economic issues. Just as newspapers are cutting reporters to save money, so they’re cutting designers. Winning back customers by degrading the product just doesn’t seem like a sound strategy.”
“Design among community newspapers is improving overall, but it still has a way to go. But to the doomsday professors who are telling our journalism students that there will not be any more newspapers in 15 years, I say wake up—the sky is not falling. Radio didn't kill print media. Video didn't kill radio. The Internet didn't kill the boob tube. The market share simply shifted, and the industry made adjustments to remain competitive. We are not an industry in crisis. We are an industry in transition.”
“Too many ads…not enough copy…pictures too small and not enough color.”
“The community newspapers that I've seen look very amateurish. My community newspaper isn't formatted in an appealing way - or one that says "here's important news!" There are spacing and justification issues, picture placement insanity and more.”
“Too many community newspapers still throw their pages together without enough advance thought. Good stories and photos easily get lost in a poor design, while a top-notch design highlights all the staff's hard work. It doesn't take any more time or extravagant equipment to put together a well-designed newspaper than it does to produce one that looks like a rag.”
FREE DESIGN EVALUATION: Ed Henninger offers design evaluations—at no charge and with no obligation—to readers of this column. For more information, check the FREEBIE page on Ed’s web site: www.henningerconsulting.com.
ED HENNINGER is an independent newspaper consultant and the Director of Henninger Consulting. Offering comprehensive newspaper design services including redesigns, workshops, staff training and evaluations. E-mail:
. On the web: www. henningerconsulting.com. Phone: 803-327-3322.