Want a Well-Designed Newspaper? Go to Europe.

The president of the Society for News Design on why American newspapers are lacking, visually.

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.

SG: The Hartford Courant won two years ago and the San Jose Mercury was the one before that. The surprising thing to me was that not only were there no American newspapers, but there were no English-speaking newspapers. That may have been a first. For the last few years, we’ve seen that the true innovation in newspaper design is happening outside this country. You see a different attitude toward newspapering in other parts in the world. And I think that must have to do with them not dealing with the bottom line issue as much as American newspapers are. Most American papers are cutting at all costs and then sitting back and wondering why advertisers and the readers aren’t coming. There is not yet even one leading newspaper chain willing to say that if we put our resources into building a better newspaper, making something that you can’t miss, that is irreplaceable every day, then the readers will come and the advertisers will come. There’s no doubt though that in these economic times, it takes guts and it takes someone really stepping forward to be a leader. Unfortunately, that’s not happening in this country right now. You’re seeing it abroad and even then, only in smaller papers. They truly know their audience. If you can identify that, you can really own something.

GB: It seems though that design is a realm where you can do a lot with very little if you are willing to take the risk to look different, to try a more daring approach. At least on the face of it, that’s not so much an economic problem.

SG: It’s a confidence issue. I think the two are intertwined. I think the fact that we have fewer resources, that we have cut left and right, you see papers less willing to take a risk. To a certain extent I don’t blame them. Nobody wants to be wrong. But that also hurts, because when you boil a newspaper to its least common denominator, there’s nothing left. And you don’t make yourself irreplaceable.

GB: I wonder if you feel personally disappointed by this. When I look at the board of SND, it is all people working for American newspapers. It must be discouraging to see that consistently these are not the papers chosen as the most innovative, as the best.

SG: Sure. It is discouraging.

GB: There is a bit of irony to it.

SG: Yes. But it also shows that this isn’t us sitting over here saying that this is purely a U.S.-focused society. We want to serve the cause of design all over the world. One of the points of pride in our general competition is when we have entrants from even more countries.

But we do see less and less American papers. It is happening. When you see something like this, is it a surprise? Sure. Is it disheartening? Absolutely. Because we all want to say that we are doing it right. We want this to be the gold standard that every newspaper aspires to.

GB: In a way, it seems like you all might be sending a message to your owners.

SG: There’s no question that we are. It doesn’t even have to say, “Did you notice there’s no American newspapers on here?” It’s obvious. And when Hartford made it, it was a source of pride for American newspapers.

GB: With papers going increasingly online, how are these design elements moving there?

SG: We do have awards already for online. And those have been around for several years, and they recognize innovative things happening online. I think this year and the coming year you are going to see a dramatic upsurge in devotion to resources and devotion to added value online. Right now, I think you are seeing it in pockets. They are all trying to figure it out very quickly because they don’t want to be left behind. In the past year, there is no question that the level of work that’s been done in video, in graphics, in multimedia has exploded exponentially, and I think there’s no end in sight for that. Also, in the best of all worlds, they will be able to achieve convergence between the papers and on-line. To me, the best possible solution is that those two continue to feed off each other. That, in print, we are guiding readers to our on-line features to see added value, to see flash graphics, photo galleries. And then, that we are driving people from the website to the newspaper, and it becomes an extension of the newspaper. And the papers that are doing that really well, are seeing the synergy already.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.