A Print Design Guru Masters Cyberspace

By: Steve Outing

Roger Black is a household name among publication designers. He's the former art director of Rolling Stone, Newsweek and The New York Times, and he is responsible for high-profile redesigns of magazines and newspapers worldwide; his Roger Black Incorporated has clients including Newsweek, Premiere, Esquire, Smart Money, Foreign Affairs, Canadian Living and Out. In 1994, Black got bit by the cyberspace bug and launched Interactive Bureau, the latest addition to his stable of worldwide companies (which include Roger Black Europe/Mexico/France/Germany/Spain, and The Font Bureau). Interactive Bureau's projects have included Discovery Online, USA Today Online and Word Online. His Font Bureau is working with the Poynter Institute on a series of news fonts for both print and online to be released in late 1996.

Black is a difficult person to track down, but I interviewed him by email recently to get his insights on designing interactive publications. He responded while flying back from Spain. Here are some excerpts:

Q: Please give us a quick overview of how you see the world of interactive publishing shaping up.

A: "We're now in the post-repurposing era. ... Editors have found that the printed newspaper is an excellent format for large amounts of text, and readers, other than research librarians, find them easier to handle than the Web. ... The first efforts to go online (such as the Chicago Tribune on America Online) might have been an interesting start, but they seem already quaint. The New York Times' posting of old restaurant reviews may have been limited, but it was useful. One paper that took on the Net with a comprehensive strategy was the San Jose Mercury News, which really uses it as a supplement to its daily printed newspaper, with references at the end of the stories that leads readers to more information on the Web, AOL, in audiotext or by fax."

Q: You designed the USA Today Online Web site. What did you learn from that project?

A: "Interactive Bureau, which got started less than a year ago, helped USA Today develop its Web site. There are four lessons there:
1) Put content on every screen, not just buttons and teasers.
2) Work to carry over your graphic identity. USA Today Online, like it or not, looks like USA Today. (One interesting diversion: their trademark graphics are recreated for the Web using 3-D wireframe software; as bandwidth increases the graphics will be animated.)
3) Leverage your best assets, in their case a dynamic database of sports results.
4) Be very light on your feet about your strategy. USA Today started as a free-standing service, with a customized browser. As the stampede to the open Web thundered louder, the management shifted to an open Web site. Microsoft took the same tack.
5) The proprietary services like AOL are not going to disappear, since they make it easy for customers, and they provide a 'circulation' revenue stream -- connect time. But they will ultimately integrate with the Internet, and for users the distinctions won't be important."

Q: There's so much activity -- going in all directions -- in the interactive media field. What has you really excited now?

A: "We are now helping design the look-and-feel for @Home, which will bring the Internet to your PC via cable modem. The speed of @Home is unreasonably fast -- 1.5 megabytes a second, which will allow streaming video and sound. ... For newspapers this network has terrific potential, both good and bad. Since @Home will be launched by cable systems, there is a big role for local content partners, who will have access to high-speed servers. The risk is that if publishers don't take advantage of @Home, a competitor will. In most markets, the dailies have a monopoly on detailed local information, like high school football scores, city council politics, and community issues such as real estate development. Newspaper readership is declining, and a lot of people may start cherry-picking this news online. And I have to believe that classified ads (which one daily publisher told me counts for 40 percent of his profit) will move online, sooner rather than later.

"In planning to go online, newspapers should take a longer view. Wide-band is coming. @Home starts its first service (not a test, the real thing) in early '96. Newspapers have the data, but they're going to have to find video and sound to get people's attention."

Q: Can you envision electronic delivery of news ever replacing printed newspapers for a sizable portion of the population?

A: "Print isn't going away, but online is going to change newspapers dramatically. It will make the last 20 years of newspaper mergings and closings -- and heartbreaking downsizing -- look like a picnic. My prediction is that in another 20 years about a third of the monopoly dailies, which think their franchise is permanent, will be gone. And the rest may well shrink to a quarter of the current circulations. Editors and publishers have got to start thinking of themselves as news people, not just newspaper people. To use the old business school example, there is a reason there is no New York Central Airline."

A Really Yucky Site

I've been remiss for not mentioning an innovative Web site designed for kids and produced by Newhouse Newspapers of New Jersey. It's called the Yuckiest Site on the Internet and features fascinating but yucky science lessons. Featured now is a witty and well designed story-board presentation on the day in a life of a household cockroach. Future subjects under consideration are spiders and learning about sight and anatomy through the dissection of a cow's eye. The plan is to have 4 or 5 presentations per year on the site.

The Yuckiest Site is a joint project of Newhouse Newspapers, New Jersey Online and the Liberty Science Center, a non-profit education institution in Jersey City, New Jersey. The project is to be funded partly by advertising; the cockroaches program is supported by REACT, Parade's print magazine for teens.

For more information, contact Elizabeth Osder at osder@newhouse.com

Steve Got a tip? Let me know about it

If you have a newsworthy item about the newspaper new media business, please send me a note.

This column is written by Steve Outing and underwritten by Editor & Publisher magazine. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com


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