Against beautiful journalism

By Felix Salmon
March 27, 2014

Have you seen that site’s gorgeous new redesign? Every article has a nice big headline, huge photos, loads of white space, intuitive and immersive scrolling, super-wide column widths — everything you need to make the copy truly sing.

I’m over it.

Part of this is because I have a long-standing soft spot for ugly. It’s easy, of course, for a web page to become too messy, too noisy — especially when the mess and the noise is mostly ad-related. On the other hand, I grew up in a culture where today’s journalism is tomorrow’s fish-and-chips wrapper, and where in general journalism isn’t taken nearly as seriously as it is in the US. That’s healthy, in many ways, and it encourages a lightness of touch, as well as a gleeful let’s-try-everything approach, and a general feeling that the publisher won’t be offended if you stop reading this and start reading that instead.

The stripped-down, minimal approach to page design has its place — but most of that time, that place isn’t for news stories, which by their nature are mostly snack-sized things written on deadline and designed to be consumed quickly and easily, rather than long meals designed to be slowly savored.

More to the point, news websites have always struggled with any one-size-fits-all approach to stories. A format which works for a 6,000-word feature is not going to work well for a 150-word brief. Web designers have known this for years, but still news sites tend to put all of their stories into exactly the same template — and increasingly that template is designed for ambitious longform storytelling. Which, of course, generally accounts for only a tiny fraction of the material on the site.

For a prime recent example of the disconnect, check out NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan’s recent post on trend stories in general, and that monocle trend story in particular:

Media watchers received the story like a Christmas present, tearing off the wrapping to get at the goods. The fun began on Twitter, after the story went online but well before its print publication. Dustin Gillard tweeted: “NYTimes does a trend piece on monocles. It is about as good/bad as it sounds.” (No one ever said the Internet was good at nuance; the wags ignored that the short piece was tucked inside the Styles section in its “Noted” column, treating it instead as if it were front-page screaming-headline news.)

But here’s the thing: on the internet (which, Sullivan admits, was for a long time the only place where you could read the story), the story wasn’t “tucked” anywhere. Instead, it looks like this:

mono2.tiff

Everything about the way that this story is presented online screams This Is Important. In the physical paper, I’m sure there were lots of design cues telling the reader not to take the story too seriously; online, they all got stripped away.

I like to flick through the NYT in the morning, and recently I’ve been playing with the replica edition on the iPad, rather than the native iPad app. (All print subscribers get free access to the replica edition, seven days a week, although the NYT doesn’t make it easy to find.) The replica edition is just the newspaper as it is laid out on paper — with different-sized headlines, classifieds, display ads, everything. It has no hyperlinks (although every headline is clickable, to be read more easily) — but instead it provides something the online and iPad editions lack: the large amount of information presented by the fine page designers of the NYT. You can see what’s important, and you can revert to old-fashioned serendipity when it comes to things like stumbling across a wonderful obituary, even when you would never deliberately decide to read the obituary section in the iPad app.

The replica edition is not a replacement for the native app, so much as it’s a complement to it — and something which shows just how good the NYT is at its native medium of print. And the NYT isn’t even close to being the best-designed newspaper out there: I might be biased, but I think it’s generally accepted that most English newspapers are better designed than nearly all US papers. When it comes to the visual display of news, newspapers daily convey vast amounts of information which is simply lost in the translation to digital. At the top of the list: any indication of the importance of any given story.

Today, when you read a story at the New Republic, or Medium, or any of a thousand other sites, it looks great; every story looks great. Even something as simple as a competition announcement comes with a full-page header and whiz-bang scrollkit graphics. The result is a cognitive disconnect: why is the website design telling me that this short blog post is incredibly important, when in reality it’s just a blockquote and a single line of snark? All too often, when I visit a site like Slate or Quartz, I feel let down when I read something short and snappy — something which I might well have enjoyed, if it just took up a small amount of space in an old-fashioned reverse-chronological blog. The design raises my expectations, even as the writers are still expected to throw out a large number of quick takes on various subjects.

This is a problem for user-generated content, too. Look at Medium, for example. It wants to be a self-expression platform, much like Twitter or Facebook — but its design is daunting: for all that it’s easy to use, people intuitively understand that the way that their story looks implies a certain level of quality and importance. That can be a good thing: it encourages contributors to up their game. But equally, it can simply result in people giving up, on the grounds that they don’t particularly want such a grand-feeling venue for their relatively small idea.

It’s time for websites to put a lot more effort into de-emphasizing less important stories, reserving the grand presentation formats only for the pieces which deserve it. In theory, most content management systems these days support various different story templates; in practice, however, there’s a kind of grade inflation going on, and everything ends up getting the A-list treatment.

One of the many small pleasures of reading the New Yorker is the way that it presents its poems: they’re clearly distinguished from the right-justified body text, but mainly just by giving them more white space, more room to breathe. While poems look great that way, however, no one has ever suggested that the magazine would be improved if everything were given so much space. I hope that the web learns that lesson soon, and starts to bring back a little bit of noise and clutter. Which is, after all, the natural state of nearly all journalism.

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Comments
12 comments so far

Felix, just because you can write an article everyday doesn’t mean that you need to.

Posted by zhivad | Report as abusive

Hey man, look at this page. Your right column in out of control and distracting me from your article. Give me some that precious white space reserved for beautiful journalism.

Posted by justanotherface | Report as abusive

I think color coding similar to what we saw during post-9/11 decade…

Green- comics
Yellow- classifieds/contests/ads
Orange- local interest articles
Red- Urgent breaking news, better read/reread this all morning and call off work

Posted by dandymandan | Report as abusive

Now this is a first-world problem, if ever there was one.

Posted by tj2400 | Report as abusive

Interesting post. I agree — clean is good. But too clean, something gets lost. And props on the point about being frustrated over not being able to tell how “significant” a story is really supposed to be. I hadn’t even thought of that.

Posted by ChadSmith | Report as abusive

Having spent the first 25 years of my career in print design and here the last 20 years doing both web and print, I’ve always said that the web set design back 100 years and typography even more.
Of course I’m not surprised, it was set up and developed by geeks. Not a one probably took as much as a single liberal arts course. They knew/know nothing of such things.
We designers have been fighting the systems/code they developed ever since we started using it.

Posted by PXLated | Report as abusive

Totally agree that “it’s time for websites to put a lot more effort into de-emphasizing less important stories.” Curated (not personalized) story hierarchy is a huge benefit of the printed newspaper that is still largely missing online.

Posted by JeffVidler | Report as abusive

People “think” with their eyeballs more than they should. I remember when laser printers first appeared after everyone was used to dot matrix printers. Since the laser printed page looked perfect, they tended to not get proof read the way older, poorly printed copies did.

Posted by Banj0man | Report as abusive

People “think” with their eyeballs more than they should. I remember when laser printers first appeared after everyone was used to dot matrix printers. Since the laser printed page looked perfect, they tended to not get proof read the way older, poorly printed copies did.

Posted by Banj0man | Report as abusive

I approve everything beautiful. Always.

Posted by SeeH | Report as abusive

Here’s a question: which online news site has the world’s highest-traffic and the fastest-growing ad revenues of any of its rivals?

Found it? Good. Now look at the page layout and compare that with sites like NYT, BBC, Daily Beast, etc. You will notice a rather obvious difference.

This may prove the author’s point I think.

Posted by James4Evar | Report as abusive

The aesthetics of Medium and Quartz over-promise & under-deliver on the quality of the content they’re pushing. Without doubt, this is true.

And editors should exercise more vigilance and discrimination over the content they push to their readers. The content-regurgitation-with-snappy-headli ne model of BI and HuffPo is not one Slate or TNR should deign to imitate.

But how readers consume information and how they share it too, figures large. And if you can get a toehold in the smartphone news market early, like Quartz and Medium seem to be doing, there’s some possible value realized there (in having achieved that early mover advantage).

So it’s important for to keep in mind the visual mediums that we or other people imagine the web with too. How content get organized visually – on desktop screens versus tablets versus phones – is a matter of kind, and not just degree.

And there’s huge growth potential in the developing world. Their primary point of entry for the internet will be the mobile phone:

http://mashable.com/2011/02/04/web-devel oping-world/

How to effectively present information through that narrow medium of visualization will be a continuing challenge. And there’s a huge market out there for those developers addressing it, since the physical means by which people interface with and consume their news is by no means a settled process.

If only 10 years ago, our primary physical medium was the actual newspaper, who’s to say what our primary medium will be 10 years hence?

Posted by RajivNunna | Report as abusive
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