Every year, the Society for News Design, an international organization based in Syracuse, New York, hands out awards for excellence in what it calls “visual journalism”—all the elements, beyond the words, that go into creating a newspaper. The most prestigious of these awards is the group of papers designated as the world’s best-designed newspapers. The four winning papers were recently chosen and can be viewed here. Besides being good-looking papers, they all share one other trait: none come from the U.S. There isn’t even a single English-language paper in the bunch. We talked with Scott Goldman, the president of SDN and the assistant managing editor of visuals at the Indianapolis Star, about what design adds to a newspaper and what the hell is wrong with American newspapers.

Gal Beckerman: What was the impetus for creating an organization that would just focus on the design element in newspapers?

Scott Goldman: Every newsroom in the country preaches that the design of a newspaper and its content need to be married—and married smartly—for the finished product to be as good as it possibly can be. The society was born in the late 1970s and was in the forefront of visual journalism’s expansion and growth. We do a lot of training for young journalists and experienced ones. Right now all of our skill sets are being stretched beyond what any of us thought they would be with online videos and multimedia and all that.

GB: Your Web site talks about “encouraging high standards of journalism through design.” Talk about how design can make the journalism better.

SG: What I look for in a well-designed newspaper is a total package on the front page of a newspaper and on the front page of every section. To me, design is about bringing all the elements together. It is getting the content editors to discuss with the photographers, to discuss with the graphic designers, to discuss with the writers how best to present the stories. The more items a newspaper has in its toolbox to better deliver the news the better it will be. I think we have moved past the sense that there is one way things should be done. Every newspaper is finding its way in the new media landscape as to how best to serve its readers. Some are very dynamic on their page one presentations and then take a magaziney approach. Some are more like the traditional newspapers in the New York Times style. But even there they are finding ways where they are doing more story summaries on page one and guiding people inside where they are being more dynamic with their presentations as well. So design is a tool. And it’s a way to really bring the entire story and package together every day for readers.

GB: In terms of criteria you used to judge the world’s best-designed newspapers, I came across something on your Web site that talked of looking for “innovation and surprise.” That’s kind of vague. Can you define it a bit more?

SG: We wanted this to be the highest award that the Society for News Design could deliver—though SND gives out hundreds of awards in various categories every year. The five judges for this award are editors and publishers, not photo editors or graphic designers, as in the other competitions. They spend a few days looking at content, how papers display stories, their presentation ideas, color, how they package stories. So it is truly the idea of trying to find the papers that are doing the best job of marrying content with design.

GB: So what’s the deal with no American papers being named? It’s not just this year, it seems.

Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.