Against beautiful journalism

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:


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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