Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Bizarro reefer of the (still-young) week

Here's a pretty striking example of News Routines Gone Awry -- in this case, the sometimes laudable goal of giving interested readers a quick hint on where to find related stories running headlong into a strikingly bad sense of what stories are about and how to determine what they have to do with each other.

The point of concern is the glorified reefer parked at midpage right, under the lede story. It's trying to wrap up all the latest papal gaffe developments without actually marring the front page with that annoying international news. (Longtime readers might recall the paper's experiment with a similar approach in 1990; the more things change, and all that.)

In case you can't enlarge it and read it (we're so far unable to upload a tighter shot of the item itself), there's a photo of a demonstration in Pakistan over the hed "Protests continue to rage against pope." The content consists of three grafs, or about one badly written brief; the concept is relying on the reefers (the "Inside" rail in the package) to take the reader to actual coverage appearing on facing pages inside.

Trouble is, nobody seemed to have asked a fairly fundamental question: Do the stories we're referring to have doodly-boo to do with the photo, hed and text on the front? You make the call:

Vatican deploys diplomats in an effort to contain anger over pope's comments/4A

Islamist rebels suspected in failed bid to assassinate Somalia's president/4A

White House revising its proposal for dealing with terrorism suspects amid resistance from lawmakers/5A

One for three. The first one's obviously direct kin. (Though it makes you wonder: Is there not a complete story somewhere, dripping with that pesky context, about the actual shades of reaction in the "Muslim world"?)

The second one, no. We seem to have confused a grisly individual murder (the shooting of a nun, in another city, which might end up being related to the issue at hand, though nobody knows) with a full-blown attempt to do away with a head of state or government -- sort of like mistaking JonBenet Ramsey for JonFitzgerald Kennedy.

And the third: Whatever you guys are smoking, one hopes you brought enough to share with the rest of the class. On what planet could these two stories possibly be related?

Unless, of course, Islamic anger at the pope is somehow related to anything in the world that has Muslims in it. In which case, where's the reefer to the Iranian soccer team? Nothing about the FBI's latest bumble in Havana-on-the-Hinkson? No room for the V&A's "Palace and Mosque"?

Time for our designer friends to chime in: Design is meant to organize, not decorate. Design serves content.

[Editor's note: Nicole's complaint below suggests that the above is aimed at the designers and that the aforementioned blunder is presumptively their fault. HEADSUP-L is happy to affirm that this is not the case; designers are by no means the chief suspects, and we ask that they not take offense.]

[Given the inept phrasing of the original post, though, one can see how they drew that conclusion. It is worth noting, as our good buddy Benny XVI has probably concluded, that while readers can't be expected to know what you meant, they often have a pretty good idea of what you said.]

Don't go out of your way, in short, to remind people you don't understand the news. They might think you mean it.


Blogger melissa angle said...

This sucks. I had this great response all typed out and it's gone. Here it is again:

Now, I'm not commenting about Charlotte specifically. I've been there and everyone is very nice and smart, and as far as I can tell, the designers are empowered. I'm simply going making sweeping generalizations based on my experiences in several different newsrooms of several different sizes.

So, how did something like this happen? Don't blame the designer. I figure one of the following four (possibly more) things happened to cause this:

1.) The designer is so unempowered he or she has nothing to say about the content he or she is being asked to package.

2.) With the birth of so-called information archetecture, everyone thinks they're a designer. They're pacakaging and reefering and whatnot all over the place, and the enthusiasm for an editor's idea (that designers had years ago) is so overwhelming that it drowns out the designer's protests.

3.) The idea was suggested before all the content came in and everyone realized the idea would fall through, but it was too late to change anything. This is, like, the worst excuse ever.

4.) Everyone thought this was a good idea.

Why is this particular instance the fault of a designer any more than the chocolate Virgin Mary story? A designer had to put THAT on the page at some point. What about the copy editor who read this nonsensical reefer box? What about the slot that sent it through?

I'm not saying by any means that designers shouldn't be familiar with their content. Indeed, Fred, design serves content. But just because we're the last pair of eyes to see a page before it's made into a plate doesn't make us the gatekeepers of editorial decisions--good or bad--anymore than it makes a copy editor the gatekeeper of design.

And I'm also not saying that a copy editor can't have an opinion on design or a designer an opinion on editing decisions. What I am saying is that you shouldn't underestimate the stupidity of smart people in large groups, which is how decisions like this get made and the voices of reason get drowned out. In our overzealous attempts to retain readers we're missing the forest for the trees.

There was so much more in my earlier post, and if it somehow makes it to you, Fred, I'd be happy if you posted it. Right now, though I have a five-day series to finish.

2:14 PM, September 20, 2006  

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