Fitting Design to the News

Last week, Felix Salmon wrote a blog post titled “Against Beautiful Journalism.” In it, he argued against the wholesale elevation of online news stories with designs he categorized as “beautiful.” He noted:

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.

Salmon professes a view that news is generally meant to be short and disposable. Kitting out articles with, “huge photos, loads of white space, intuitive and immersive scrolling, [and] super-wide column widths,” signals the opposite of that to the reader.

Because it’s often tangled up with personal taste, conversations about news design can get very messy, very fast. Our idea of what news should be influences our aesthetic preferences. Clearly that’s the case for Salmon.

That said, few could argue with a call for design to better match content. That’s the ultimate goal of all editorial design. To that end, we shouldn’t be giving toss-off content the Rolls Royce treatment. Beyond that though, I think Salmon’s post is off in some key areas.

First, “beautiful” is not the current majority default, despite the impression the post gives. The usual suspects cited—the New York Times, Quartz, Medium—represent a rarefied subset of what’s going on across the entire news and publishing spectrum. Yes, they are incredibly influential, and yes, there is certainly a trend. But several high profile examples does not constitute a landslide of over-design. Spend a little time looking around, and you’ll likely find “ugly” is still very much the default.

Second, with regard to CMSs, everything hinges on those two key words: “in theory.”

In theory, yes, plenty of modern CMSs give us flexible templates. In practice, I can count on one hand the newsrooms that are happy with them. (To count the ones that actively hate the limitations imposed by their CMS, I’d need several volunteers worth of hands.) We’re not talking about minor nitpicks, either. Basic design tasks like customizing headline sizes or swapping layout modules on the fly still gum up the works far more often than they should.

The situation is improving, and therein lies the irony. Across newsrooms in the last eighteen to twenty-four months, the main driving force behind greater CMS flexibility is the same thing popularizing the aesthetic Salmon takes to task: Snow Fall.

As I’ve said before, the current bespoke editorial trend is paying us dividends beyond pretty articles. It’s been an active R&D lab, one of the biggest areas of experimentation being template flexibility.

Step one was inventing ways to “jailbreak” out of CMS defaults. Step two is folding those inventions back into the CMS. Taken together with lessons learned about how and when to use it, the result is a major step forward for online art direction.

We’re gaining the ability to dial presentations up or down on a per-article basis, when the situation calls for it. It just happens we started by concentrating on the “up,” because “down” is a place where most of our designs have already been.