About seven years ago, I had long philosophical discussions with Ted Yee, a visionary design leader at The Charlotte Observer, about how web design would affect print. We thought about shapes, type and page orientations, but not about process.
We were so off base.
Now, it’s clear that the processes of the web have affected print much more than shapes and typography have.
News organizations have learned how to borrow processes from web production to make print less costly. Tribune, Gannett, McClatchy and Media General have all taken steps to somewhat automate print production and to streamline costs. The changes have pushed some design thinking earlier, to setup of templates for routine content, across newspapers.
That thinking has become more like wireframing for websites.
The Society of News Design wrapped up its annual convention in Denver this week, and one session focused on templates and print production hubs for newspapers. Gannett’s Kate Marymont was on the panel, which talked about the new hubs being rolled out by Gannett and the other legacy news chains. Print production for several newspapers will happen in a centralized spot, perhaps hundreds of miles away from the communities served by particular newspapers.
That panel discussion is important beyond newspapers, for people interested in journalism and in journalism education, because it opened windows to redefined roles at legacy news organizations.
Some traditional print jobs have permanently changed. We need to accept it and move forward.
Since 1999, I’ve taken special assignments at various times working on setup of the CCI content management system (pardon my jargon). CCI has evolved into a system for print and web production, and it enables the templating and sharing of news for Tribune, some of McClatchy, some New York Times properties and for Gannett. I know of one startup using it for sponsored local content.
I’ve emerged from that work (and after a year away, learning the freelance world) focused on niche community news without traditional job definitions, still using CCI. I work with a team where everyone knows how to layout pages, write headlines, crop photos and edit copy. Traditional desk jobs don’t exist. We’re not part of The Desk, but rather a separate operation focused on small zones, generally within 30 miles of the office.
But those on The Desk in some other newsrooms face a different reality, of more specialized roles, designed to streamline production in a Henry Ford sort of way. And much of our journalism vocabulary, our job descriptions and our education programs haven’t quite adapted. I salute SND for tackling the issue head on, in an earlier Q&A and an open letter, and I hope the organization can find ways to support those adapting to the new world.
Spinning off that SND panel, here are a few realities about design in newsprint now:
- The definition of “designer” remains in flux. Pay attention to the skills and responsibilities within job listings rather than titles. The bulk of the jobs at Gannett’s future print “design” hubs and at other editing and design hubs could include responsibilities and be on a pay scale more appropriate to those trained at community colleges than at traditional four-year journalism or design schools. That’s reality. The print production hubs remain here, in the United States, instead of overseas because the pay scales in some U.S. locations can compete with internationally outsourced work.
- Future good, creative jobs will emerge for developers, collaborators and trainers who specialize in content management systems for print newspapers. Gannett’s MaryMont said during the SND panel that she hopes for a clear career path for those working in the new Gannett hubs. Those with futures and interesting jobs will have collaboration skills, coding skills, process management and documentation abilities, troubleshooting skills and comfort with databases and continuous learning. (Sounds similar to web skills, right?)
- Front-line editors and reporters will need new (or old?) skills in design principles, basic layout and visual thinking. Budgeting stories and meeting pre-set story lengths in visual building blocks will matter.
- Specializing in print design is a dangerous path. Freelance designers will tell you the same. Some sweet, creative jobs will survive, for those who are exceptionally good or exceptionally cheap. Are you as good as Martin Gee? Then go for it.
- If I were a new journalist interested in design now, I’d grab the skills needed for tablets and phones and would not invest my time solely in legacy print software. Likewise, legacy news companies that want to attract design talent for new platforms will need to decide whether to define or preserve jobs that attract that talent. But their bankers might not let them.
- Balance sheets and debt payments matter more at publicly traded companies than good intentions.
The SND panel on print design templates came a day after Block by Block, a gathering in Chicago that supported new local news websites, and it preceded the annual Online News Association meeting at the end of October in Washington, D.C. The best thinking for the future of news and its presentation will bridge ideas from all of those conferences, across platforms. Those who can relearn fast and look forward clearly will survive.
Honest, open words will help.
Photo credit: kevinzim, through Flickr, with a Creative Commons license.