Prescription for SND’s ills

In Biz, editor, Freelance, graphics, innovation, News, newspaper, publish, publisher, Publishing, Smartness, smartnews, startup, The news biz, venture on June 19, 2009 at 2:49 pm

Like many other news and former news folks, I’ve been unable to tear my eyes away from the Society for News Design trainwreck. (Charles Apple’s coverage here) And like many others, I’ve been involved in sotto voce conversations in the wings as the blood spread across the stage.

First, my background: I’m not now nor have I ever been an officer of SND. I let my membership lapse recently, as I’m out of the business. I’ve been a paying member off and on over the years, always (as far as I can remember) out of pocket. A Quick Course in Chapel Hill really turned my head around on newspaper design in the early ’90s and planted the seed for my career.  Many of my friends and most people I would call colleagues are or have been members. I’ve attended three annual workshops — San Jose, Houston, and Boston — on my own dime and felt they were worth every penny. My only other official connection was a lecture session I gave at a Quick Course in Salt Lake City. So, I’m a semi-active former member, not in any way an important voice.

Here’s the upshot: SND needs a wholesale reinvention. SND needs to get into the news business by promoting and incubating journalistic ventures that will eventually compete with the current mainstream press. Yes, I said it, it’s time for SND to bite the hand that’s fed it for decades.

The news industry has let us down. I can’t count how many of my friends and colleagues have lost their jobs or are just waiting for the axe to fall. And the axe appears to have fallen disproportionately on “visual” people. It’s time to fight back, and to do it in a way that genuinely supports the interests of members — by creating jobs.

Who is doing that, right now? A scattering of disconnected ventures, each hoping to be the next big thing, many with little or no money or support, just enthusiasm and big dreams. Those of you who’ve followed my Smartnews misadventures know all about that. These efforts need support: investors, clerical/intern help, good ideas, marketing. These are not necessarily SND’s strengths, but they need to be. News needs that. Those of us who believe in design as a journalistic tool, who love infographics and grids and, yes, even the Typeface du Jour need that.

Jay Small, whom you could call an important voice, is on the right track:

SND must represent the brightest thinking focused on innovation in communicating the news. Typeface du jour? Web width of the month? Hell, no. Attracting and engaging news consumers and enabling communities around the news? Oh, yeah!

SND needs to fill another leadership vacuum: The gap between so-called visual people and word people. Far too many designers, photographers and graphic artists have weak spelling, grammar and reporting skills. Way too many writers and editors have no clue about the synergy of their efforts with those of everyone else. Much has been said about bridging the worlds, but the silos remain. And toss multimedia and Web skills into the mix, too. There are just not enough jobs out there to justify separations of church and state, anymore. Anyone who’s lucky enough to have a newsroom position has to know it all. But so few of us do.

Some of SND’s training does address this: The folks I most respect get it about perpetrating good journalism, about making every word and image count. But it’s in our nature to go for the pretty over the effective. We’ve got to focus on changing that if we want to have a place at the table.

If SND were to do all that, I’m afraid that much of what it focuses on now — the big contest, the annual meeting — would have to take a backseat. It’d be the end of an era. But, let’s face it, folks, we’re at the end of a journalism era.

  1. Busiest day this crummy site has ever had. Thanks for reading. It goes to show how much people care about SND, news design, graphic journalism, etc.

    Please, bring on your addendums, critiques, big ideas and questions.

  2. Good one, Jim.

    I’m with ya, but I think you knew that. I don’t understand how we can live in an era of Twitter and Facebook and such, and still be surrounded by people who are convinced the best way to tell a reader about, well, ALMOST EVERYTHING is to write 12-15″ of copy about it and ship it on down the assembly line. Every day, I see us living and dying by old habits while praying for change and whining about the state of the industry and bitching about the workloads. Churn, churn, churn. Plug, plug, plug. Whine, whine, whine. It makes me crazy. It really does.

    I, too, let my SND membership lapse. It had expired a few months before, but I had intended to re-up when submitting entries for contest this year. But when I went picking through my best work of the past year, there wasn’t much there I thought “SND worthy,” which really bugged me because I had done some interesting things that year. I had coaxed some reporters out of the box, and it generally left me with exceedingly little time to make anything fancier than cleanly designed pages, CPs, and whatnot. Our “crunchy boxes,” as we like to call them in our newsroom, beg more for clean organizational types of design over conceptual artful wonders.

    In a way, I see it as getting back to basics. Embracing that fundamental corollary any half-decent designer remembers from their first design class: Form follows function. At such a crucial time in our industry, in our economy, in our very Society of News Design … how can anything else win out?

    We don’t have to make majesty out of the mundane; we just have to get the message across.


    Anyway, thanks for humoring me here. I might be packing up my little soapbox for a while as I’m about to be swamped with a major project at work, a self-imposed deadline on a major personal project, a quick trip back to the family farm, and culminating with the Big Ideas/Best Practices conference at Poynter in a few weeks. (I’ll probably be incorporating some of the stuff above into my mini-presentation since I can’t stop thinking about it.)

    Keep fighting the good fight, my friend.

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