How to make something from nothing?

Front page from Indiana Daily Student

From the Design With Reason inbox:

“What are the ways to make Page One attractive on a dull day?”

Sajeev Kumar T.K, Visual Editor, Kerala Kaumudi (Kerala, India)

Coincidentally I received this query at the start of my daylong visit last week with editors and designers from the Indiana Daily Student, at my alma mater, IU-Bloomington. I was in town for a twice-yearly meeting of the alumni advisory board to the dean of the journalism school, and I try to spend time visiting the student paper, website and magazine staffs as I can. So let me use a few pages from the IDS to make my point.

The above page is a good example of the student newspaper’s “something from nothing” creativity which has served them well on a number of days this year. [Design credit: Rebecca Westall, Indiana Daily Student.] The story is based on new research which examines the health benefits of having sex. (OK, Sajeev, this may not fly in your newspaper, or for others who may be reading this, but keep in mind the “type attack” philosophy behind this approach. Maybe it would apply to another story about research, a government report, etc.) There are no obvious visuals – in fact, it’s a touchy subject which, told photographically, could set off any number of alarms. (And it sounds like there was no obvious breaking news photo of interest, nor a visual to go with the other stories up for consideration for the front page.) But by examining the content of the story, making a giant checklist out of key points, the staff definitely created an attention-grabbing page. For a newspaper entirely circulated by pick-up at distribution points around campus, grabbing the eye is a must, either in visuals, bold lead headlines, or both.

It’s worth examining some concerns that I overheard while visiting the staff, and had myself, which may be shared by other newsrooms contemplating this sort of approach:
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  • “Is this sensationalizing the news?” Depends on 1) your market, and 2) your paper’s vision. I can’t imagine that this would fly in India, for this particular topic; but for a student paper, on a liberal campus? No problem. And if your paper has a shared mission of creating provocative content, and where appropriate creating designs to reinforce that content, then there’s no problem with an approach like this. If you value creating surprise, drama, emotion, conversation? Then this is the way to go. (I will discuss the notion of creating a newsroom mission statement, and design strategy, in an upcoming blog entry, as this was a big topic of discussion with the student editors.) Of course, always discuss the pro’s and con’s of any approach on a given day.
  • “Isn’t it against the rules to run a lead package with ‘no art’ (i.e. photo or illustration or infographic anchoring the page)?” To this I would say, who is making the rules? Large papers around the world have use this technique, or a variation, on covers or inside pages. At the end of the day, my only concern is: does any particular solution, in words or visuals, cheapen the paper? Does it lessen our credibility? Does it confuse the reader or limit their comprehension of the story? If the answer is no to all of these, I say, proceed!

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Here are a few other pages that came to my attention during my visit. Congrats to the IDS for taking chances and provoking readers to get involved with the paper via dynamic design!
This page is extremely text-heavy, but very effective. It’s a good example of what you might do when you have “only a mug shot” (or four) to carry the day. Though this was an inside page, I could easily see it down-sized as a centerpiece for the front page, or even in a bolder step, carrying the entire front. This begged the question: “Is it OK to put editorial matter on the front page – either in tease form or in its entirety?” To this I respond, large papers such as the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times have done it, with varying levels of restraint, and they are still going strong. Just be sure to label any opinion matter as such, and the reader will do fine. Readers are also quite used to news and opinion pieces mixing regularly on websites; the key is in identifying the matter for what it is. [Design Credit: Larry Buchanan]
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What would have been better here? The outdated cliche photo of worried traders on the stock market trading floor? NO. This is an eye-catching page, and I wonder how the treatment would have worked, down-sized, if packaged on a front page, with several other stories. If the topic merits it, why not? [Design Credit: Ellis Latham-Brown]
A salary survey showed some of the big bucks made my college coaches. While the paper did not have access to a photo of the IU coach standing, designer Biz Carson got creative with a photo illustration, taking a head shot from the files and creating a drawn body (clearly labeling as “photo illustration” is essential). The infographic, which shows the top salary going “through the roof” of the paper’s nameplate, is an attention grabber. [Design Credit: Biz Carson]

This is the cover of an inside section but I wanted to share it here because it’s such an effective solution. The topic is poetry slams on campus. Anyone who has been to a poetry slam knows that this really conveys the emotion and spirit of the art form. It’s clean, wonderful use of typography that projects the story well. Could this technique work on the front page? Perhaps not on a story about a poetry slam, but some other dramatic quote that comes from the day’s news? Hmmm … why not? (I’ve actually seen this work at major daily  papers around the world.) One criticism I had because I always feel I need to offer something in a critique session: I’d have put a refer or teaser of some kind with in the block of story text, teasing to video or audio of the poetry slammers interviewed, on the paper’s website or on YouTube. Always do a quick search to see if anyone featured in a story has relevant audio or video already posted, or text of their poetry, that you can link to – these days, many people have this posted, on these sites or personal blogs. If not, it would only take 5 minutes with a Flip camera to record the artist doing his/her thing doing a quick visit to the student paper’s offices, or in their dorm room, out in the forest, or some other relevant place. Always think multimedia and added value! [Design Credit: Sarah Thacker]

Here are a few extra thoughts from those involved:

Brad Zehr, Daily Student Editor-in-chief: “Our management staff in particular has pushed trying new things on the front page, most importantly the top half (above the fold). Our mentality is that big, dynamic visuals lead to bigger readership. This is especially true for our audience, which is primarily college-age students. They seem to pick up more papers when we do more than put six columns of text across the top and a large photo in the center of the page. We want to pique interest as students pass the newsstands. There has been a misconception that we value design more than we value content (we being me, our two managing editors, and our art director), but that’s not true. We want design to work together with content to draw in more readers. Above all, we ask ourselves how we can tell a story most effectively – and almost always that involves something different or more than a 500-word block of text.”

Larry Buchanan, Daily Student Art Director: “As far as my thoughts on the pages go, our most successful pages reflect having a solid concept early on in the day and working with photo, design, reporter, desk editor and management to create an effective page. None of these pages was done spur of the moment, on deadline. We had a concept early in the day and developed the package around that concept. In each of these pages we chose one thing, and took that one thing big. Slow news days are some of the best days to take risks. When else can you blow up a graphic of the President of the university that large?”

Kudos also to advisors to the Daily Student, including Ron Johnson, Ruth Whitmer and Rachel Knoble, as well as the faculty of Ernie Pyle Hall, and industry leaders such as Scott Goldman, AME/Design of the Indianapolis Star, who visited the newsroom at start of the fall semester to give inspiration and advice.

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Any questions about this topic? Feel free to send an email. Or, do you have a page that fulfills the “something from nothing” philosophy? If so, send it along, to ron (at) ronreason.com. Include your name, title, and name of publication, and any explanatory text, and it may be considered for a future posting.

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