Good design holds the key for news organizations scrambling to attract an audience in a highly fragmented field of competitors, according to magazine and newspaper designer, Roger Black.
For more than 50 years he brought his design acumen to such titles as Esquire, Reader’s Digest, Rolling Stone, Fast Company, Entrepreneur and Popular Mechanics. Black has also aided the redesigns of the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and a number of Hearst newspapers. In 2012, the Society of News Design presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Black was recently interviewed for our podcast, “E&P Reports” with host Bob Andelman. He talked about design’s importance as papers build their online identity and the role it plays for print.
“If you are covering something well, you have an opportunity of getting a reader,” Black said. “If that’s the case, then you really have to find a way of moving them through (the story) and then trying to get them to subscribe, trying to get their address and maybe even to get a little money out of them. That’s something you can do with design.”
Branding is vital for any news organization. Readers from across the globe find stories through social media feeds, email links and searches. By creating a distinctive identity, Black said, sites have better opportunities to bring readers back versus using a templated design that relies on common fonts and layouts that look like every other site.
“What you really want to do is make sure there is an uninterrupted experience of getting information,” Black said. “Clear channel text, good type, some kind of differentiation of the text, some way of segmentation, or subtitles, or lists of points. And then easy links to sidebars or related pieces so that you can go on and see stuff that they’ve done that are on the same subject. Not to take you off the site though, something within the site.”
He talked about online stories and packages in terms of being mini-editions of publications and outlets, stressing the need to make an impression when readers clicked in. “If you can get somebody to enjoy your publication for a few minutes,” Black said, “then there’s a chance they’ll come back, and there’s a chance that they might subscribe.” But Black added that a lot of people need to do that to make the model work.
Additionally, news organizations aren’t being compelling enough. “If anything, we push them away,” he said. “We imagine they’re not there to stay. That’s reinforcing the behavior that’s hurting us.”
The other thing Black believes that hurts the industry online is the pursuit of clickbait ads. “It’s kind of shocking what the algorithm thinks the user wants to see,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a little disturbing. I cannot believe that there are big papers that do this and I can’t believe the money is worth it. Because what it does is devalue the experience and it hurts your brand.”
He argued that print is only part of a news outlet’s success. Print’s “hegemony” was over nearly a century ago with the advent of radio, Black said, comparing newsprint and magazines to craft: something that is really interesting looking that people can hold in their hands. It requires outstanding design.
“You want to use everything,” Black said. “You want some kind of social outreach and you want podcasts and you want video and now they’re trying VR (virtual reality) and everything else they can think of. If you can stretch as far as you can and bring people in—in every possible way—it’s going to be better. And print is a part of it.”