USA Today’s new suit doesn’t fit

By Jack Shafer
September 14, 2012

USA Today in 1982

I have a theory – one that I’m certain I’ve stolen – that it was Al Neuharth and not Tim Berners-Lee who invented the World Wide Web – with the creation of USA Today. Page One of the paper’s first issue, Sept. 15, 1982, contains so many of the visual motifs that would become common on homepages a decade later when the Web really got rolling that you’ve got to suppress the urge to click and scroll when looking at it today. And swipe! USA Today founder Neuharth may have simultaneously anticipated the tablet, too.

Gannett’s ballyhooed redesigned USA Today, which hit newsstands today, 30 years after that first issue, still looks to my eyes like a proto-Web page. Breaking news (keyed to pages inside) still runs down the left rail like an RSS feed; a simple grid still serves a populist mix of news and entertainment that not even the Huffington Post has improved on; and the infographic “USA Snapshot,” which spawned a billion imitators in both print and online, still anchors the bottom left corner. The only casualty from the original Page One design appears to be the colorful weather “ear,” although it’s been dead for many years.

Early Web designers probably didn’t look directly at USA Today‘s front page for homepage inspiration. It’s more likely that squeezed by the technological limitations of the early Web era – a limited selection of fonts, narrow bandwidth, slow graphics cards and small displays – Web designers responded by reducing homepages to grids that were easily downloadable and easily digestible. Form followed function in both the case of USA Today and the early Web, with no room for gratuitous design.

If the original USA Today design anticipated the digital future, it did so by translating into print the electronic vision of television news, which put a similar premium on presenting the news with breathtaking brevity. Like network news, USA Today was national and was bounced off satellites. Like network news, USA Today boasted lots of color photography, something the New York Times didn’t get around to reproducing for another 15 years. Like TV, it tried to tell stories in pictures. Even its street boxes looked like big-tube TVs. And like network news, USA Today pointed itself at the national audience’s great middle, and connected.

USA Today‘s staff took abuse for the paper’s shortcomings – which were real and many – for about a decade, even as other newspapers imitated its weather and sports coverage, color reproduction and design. But then came 1989 and the post-Neuharth era, at which point the newspaper’s editors stiffened USA Today‘s soft editorial posture. But by 1998, the changes were so dramatic that American Journalism Review was praising USA Today on its many journalistic merits. Anybody who has called it “McPaper” in the past 15 years hasn’t been paying attention.

Today’s USA Today

Last redesigned in 2000, when the web size of the paper was reduced from 54 inches to 50 inches, the new USA Today wants to shout modernity, what with its circle logo and the day’s date printed in starlog* fashion (09.14.12) on Page One. But the new paper has all the graphical punch of a supermarket flyer, with every column-inch competing for your eyeball. If everything is graphically important, if everything is colorful – as the new USA Today would have it – then nothing is. If the redesigned USA Today were a meal, it would be a 2-quart jar of sliced jalapeños. If it were a wrestling move, it would be a full nelson. (The Web version of USA Today, which is also being redesigned and is previewed here, looks handsome, like Flipboard only better. But that’s another column.)

Newspaper redesigns end up mattering less to readers than they do to editors or advertisers. I’ve never met anybody who stopped or started reading a newspaper based on its redesign, and for all its cacophony, the new USA Today isn’t likely to inspire or anger anybody breathing the air outside the media bubble. According to a vaguely worded passage in AdAge: ”The print redesign is characterized by more color and some new elements in part meant to appeal to advertisers looking for a type of print sponsorship.” That may sound frightening to some ears, but the willingness of newspapers to cut their hems to satisfy Madison Avenue is as old as newspapers. Remember, it wasn’t uncommon 150 years ago for American newspapers to have nothing but ads on Page One.

Like many 30-year-olds, USA Today seems to be suffering a bit of a fashion crisis and has overdressed itself with every stitch in the wardrobe, when all it needed to do was tweak its nameplate and section heads to lend itself the look of the new. Luckily, no newspaper redesign was ever set in stone. Because the execution of a redesign is always as important as the redesign itself, the paper’s designers probably have the leeway they need to stop the paper from screaming at me. I’d like that, seeing as I don’t own a pair of noise-canceling headphones.

******

*I read that “starlog” quip someplace today and would like to attribute it, but after a furious search I can’t find it. If you know who said it first, send the URL to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com or shoot it at my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

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At the School of Visual Arts in NY, design program co-chair Steve Heller agrees.

“It’s a mess. It’s a mélange of a lot of things that forces the eyes to cross rather than focus on any one thing,” he told The NYT’s Media Decoder blog.

Overall, “the design community was in a fluster,” says the post.

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