4 big ways the NYTimes is helping us teach ‘design and disruption’

Manhattan meets Montana: With great help from Times staff, we have a front row seat to study news media innovation, leadership, risk and hope

By Ron Reason

Several months of discussing innovation and change at The New York Times culminates this Thursday for our class, “Critical Thinking About Design and Disruption,” when Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet comes to campus as part of Dean Stone Week. He’ll spend an hour in our classroom, and others at the University of Montana School of Journalism, and later present a lecture to the public, “Quality Journalism in the Digital Age: Challenges and Opportunities.”

baquetBaquet’s visit comes in the wake of months of intense change at the Times, and a huge media spotlight on the evolving yet challenged brand, its people and their work – a lucky break for students getting an up-close-and personal look at issues shaping the industry, and their future, partly thanks to a variety of Times staffers helping us out. Here are ways we’ve been taking a deep dive into the Times, in preparation for Baquet’s time here this week:

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He wears pink socks: A Dean Baquet/ NYTimes reading list for UMJSchool

Baquet is seemingly everywhere, including the current issue of The Hollywood Reporter. Link here to learn why...

Baquet is seemingly everywhere, including the current issue of The Hollywood Reporter. Link here to learn why…

Hebdo, Abramson, innovation, diversity, mobile, Magazine, multimedia: Studying up on an esteemed visitor, his company

In advance of this Thursday’s visit to the University of Montana School of Journalism by Dean Baquet, Executive Editor of The New York Times, students in a variety of classes including J494: The Pollner Seminar, Critical Thinking About Design and Disruption have been studying up on the institution, its innovations, and the man, who will spend an hour with our class and give a public lecture later that night. Following is a curated list of articles and links, including many assigned to J494, for anyone wanting to learn more in advance of his visit to campus. (Related, from this blog: “4 big ways the NYTimes is helping us teach design and disruption.”)


Dean Baquet bio with links to his Times columns and articles (NYTimes) 
Baquet assumes editorship after departure of Jill Abramson
(NYTimes, David Carr)
On Abramson, race, surviving cancer, and ‘TMZ envy’ (Daily Beast, Lloyd Grove)
Meet Dean Baquet, the Times’ first black boss (New York magazine, Joe Coscarelli)
“One of the most famous quotes in political journalism came from his reporting”: 10 facts about Baquet
(Politico, Lucy McCalmont)
Baquet: Media failed after 9/11, hopes next Snowden comes to them (Huffington Post, Michael Calderone)
Dean Baquet calls critic of Times’ Hebdo decision an ‘asshole’ (Politico, Dylan Byers)
‘We were arrogant,’ Baquet says of Hebdo decision (Spiegel, Isabell Hülsen and Holger Stark)
Turbulence at the Times (Politico longform from 2013)
Baquet gives tour of private office, says he checks Facebook 15 times a day (Hollywood Reporter)

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Launching today: A new Crain’s Detroit Business for a new Detroit

a compo

[The relaunch issue cover, and a Special Report opener inside.]

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U Montana’s Pollner professorship in journalism: advice, tips, resources

The Pollner Distinguished Professorships at the University of Montana School of Journalism present an exciting, unique opportunity for professional journalists (or “news media experts,” if you want to look beyond writers, editors or photographers) to take a career break and make a big difference. The one-semester posts carry a generous $40,000 stipend. The application period is typically closes end of January each year, but check this page for updates.

In 2015, I was fortunate to be the first to hold the new spring professorship, endowed to expand the school’s offerings in visual journalism, digital media, and/or the business side of the news (as distinct from business or financial reporting – the fall professorship, as it has for years, goes to an expert in reporting or editing, so if you are a business reporter or editor, that’s likely the spot you want to check out).

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Want a more creative publication? Skilled staff? Conduct art classes

Sylvia Kolaski, Senior Art Director, and Pierrette Dagg, Creative Services Director for Crain's Detroit Business, prepare art training sessions for the staff.

Sylvia Kolaski, Senior Art Director, and Pierrette Dagg, Creative Services Director for Crain’s Detroit Business, prepare art training sessions for the staff. [Photo: Madalyn Knebel]

Often the road to redesign brings happy surprises (beyond, one hopes, a smart looking publication). Prototyping and other goal-setting can suggest workflow restructuring, clarification of roles and responsibilities, and training needs. All came about at our redesign this spring of Crain’s Detroit Business, where redesign project manager Pierrette Dagg was promoted to Creative Services Director shortly before the relaunch. She began looking for ways to elevate skill levels on the staff while making the redesigned pages even more inviting. One big solution? A regular series of cross-departmental art classes, or what she calls “Design Think Tanks,” which are already making the publication look and read better. The effort has expanded to include several sister newsrooms in the Crain family as well. Here’s my conversation with Pierrette on how that all came about and where it’s going.

What prompted you to suggest doing art classes for Crain’s Detroit Business? How did the redesign factor in to this idea?

“Everybody on my art team (marketing, sales and editorial) has a very different set of skills. That said, people are working differently, creating files differently, and sharing is difficult. Not to mention the hell that comes on when someone goes on vacation and we have to fill a gap. When I was promoted to Art Director, I took time to consider everyone’s strengths and realized we have a lot of talent and specific skills on this team. Marketing could benefit from some of editorial’s layout and typography skill. Editorial could be more aesthetically pleasing with some additional art techniques and understanding. Read the full post »

NYT Magazine redesign: for students, textbook “Design and Disruption”


Early word last week on the redesign/reinvention of The New York Times Magazine gave a good indication this wouldn’t be just a cosmetic exercise, a shuffling around of fonts with a few new editorial features. Instantly I suspected this would offer great lessons for the coming week for my class, “Critical Thinking About Design and Disruption,” at the University of Montana School of Journalism. (With NYT Editor Dean Baquet coming to speak to us April 16, and channels like The Upshot garnering great buzz for innovation and audience development, the Times is big on our radar this semester in Big Sky country.)

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NCAA Champion magazine redesigns, rethinks, and scores!

Working on your own prototypes, but want an expert eye on your strategy and creative process? The NCAA sought just that, and found it’s a low-cost way to keep things focused and creative. 

cover shot

One of the best things about taking a break from consulting to teach this semester at the University of Montana is that a number of recent clients are launching redesigns I can share immediately with my class, “Critical Thinking About Design and Disruption.” This week, we’re taking a deep dive into Champion, the quarterly glossy magazine of the NCAA, who brought me to their HQ in Indianapolis last year to help guide them through the strategy and mission of redesign and change management. Their fine work goes public just this month.

I occasionally do this sort of “limited” consulting where I’m tasked with bringing an internal group together, analyzing strengths and shortcomings of current approaches, and targeting specific values worth rethinking to push the magazine, organization, and/or brand forward. We look at editing strategies and voice, design tools, planning, internal communications, staff structure, and lots more “behind the scenes” stuff that can make or break a redesign. (The tough work of the actual prototyping would later fall to the able hands of Creative Director Arnel Reynon, whose work I had admired for a few years.)

Champion had many strengths, including excellent design and photography on its covers and cover story  spreads inside, so it wasn’t something that needed to be blown up by any stretch. But when the project leader, Editor Amy Wimmer Schwarb, said they were pondering expanding the appeal of the magazine a bit beyond the NCAA membership, reaching out to more student athletes and fans of sports journalism in general, I agreed to help them think it through. I tasked them to consider how their story packaging, navigation and labeling, graphics, headlines, and even writing might be updated to appeal to both traditional and new readers alike.

What better way to teach “design and disruption” to my students than by showing and dissecting the physical evidence of change, happening right now in the industry?

Last Thursday, everyone in class got an older issue of Champion, pre-redesign, and I assigned them to analyze what worked and what might have fallen short in the old format. (And I ask the same of my class as I do of my clients: It’s not enough to respond with “I don’t know why, I just like it,” or “this doesn’t work for me” – articulate for me why the reader, the story, or the brand wins or suffers by what they see in the design or editing.) Then, this Tuesday, I gave them copies of the revamped Winter 2015 issue of Champion, hot off the press.

Instantly, the students said they were struck by the many improvements: Highly appealing new type, color and navigation systems. Smarter segmenting of stories, vastly improved conversational headlines, a tone of inspiring and mentoring readers, and stories that look forward rather than back.

Here’s a look at some of those ingredients:

1) Headlines with a stronger, more conversational voice.

It’s an almost universal criticism I offer up to publications I’m working with lately: your headlines are too often flat, they seem like a press release, they could be more compelling. Champion’s headlines weren’t terrible, or inaccurate, but sometimes they didn’t exactly inspire the reader to come on in. When I worked with the staff, we dove into the content and talked through specific ways to make the magazine seem less like it was talking at the reader and more like it was talking with them.

I love their solution: let’s not only write the headlines in a more compelling way, but display them as such. Shown here are two examples, at the bottom of each page reversed in blue:




Editors or publishers who bring me in for a design critique, or strategic tune-up, are surprised at how much of an emphasis I put on the writing of headlines. I tell them, reading weak headlines is like walking into a party and having the most dull person there greet you and start talking. I can’t wait to move on to something else. It’s one of the most important things we can work on in redesigning and rethinking a magazine.  Read the full post »

For Montana Newspaper Association: Editing and design resources

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 11.44.42 AM

I’m looking forward to speaking at the 130th Montana Newspaper Association convention this weekend in Big Sky, MT. My topic will be design and editing techniques to make newspapers more engaging for readers and advertisers. Following are resources for attendees that will be mentioned in my talk:

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Advice for young (and seasoned) journalists? Ask some very recent grads


Grizzly grads tell us loud and clear: Get ready for digital-first publishing, heavy on social media, rocked by (and enjoying) constant change.

[February 10, 2015, Missoula, Mont.] What an eye-opener it was for the journalism class I’m teaching this semester, “Critical Thinking About Design and Disruption,” to see #AdviceForYoungJournalists top the Twitter trends over the last 24 hours. Research they’d produced just the week before, which we’ve edited into an eBook (downloadable PDF, via the link above and here) for release today, contains plenty of just that.

The initial assignment: contact a recent alum from the University of Montana School of Journalism, and report back on how each has navigated, or caused, the disruption rocking the news media today. Each report contains tips for, yes, survival, but also adaptation, perseverance, learning, growing, and thriving.

Their findings, and our class discussions continuing this week, have turned out to be the perfect kickoff for my course, which is the cornerstone of an endowed professorship here at the UM J-school (learn more).

In applying for the post, and considering topics I’d wanted to teach, I settled on the biggest issue reshaping the news media daily: disruption. Disruption covers, of course, the contractions that have rattled the mainstream media, but also the massive (and exciting) experimentation, platform expansion, product launching and risk taking we are seeing in all areas of news creation and delivery, from traditional publishers to entrepreneurs. I also wanted to cover design in a broad sense, going beyond graphic identity into the design of companies, cultures, workflow, editorial and revenue strategies, marketing plans, audience development.

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U of Montana High School Journalism Day: Visual Journalism Resources


By Ron Reason
T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professor, U of Montana School of Journalism, Spring 2015

Following are some quick links to explore, particularly for students attending my presentation “Creating Visual Journalism” at High School Journalism Day at the University of Montana School of Journalism, Thursday, April 9, 2015.


The campus newspaper, the Montana Kaimin, is being totally reinvented in Fall 2015 as a color newsweekly magazine! (Staff has been actively working on plans and designs behind the scenes since early this year.) They will also accelerate publishing daily on the web, including interactive storytelling, and are active on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Check them out to see the kinds of cool stories they publish across all media. UM may have as many opportunities if not more than any other school in the country for students to get published, in print, online and on the air, including some you can find nowhere else such as Native News and Montana Journalism Review magazine. Check those out here.

Wondering where Grizzly grads are getting jobs, and how they are adapting to this crazy disruptive world of journalism and change you have been hearing a lot about? Read the full post »