Press has lost the art of sorting the wheat from the chaff
Why do our local news operations offer either no app, or a poor one? Why are our news sites so dull? In the rush to cut costs, we have forgotten or lost the essential skills of news design.
This may sound like an obtuse concern, but it is fundamental to how we consume news and how news operations build their credibility and usefulness among increasingly wary and sceptical consumers. It reflects whether or not editors are doing what they are paid to do.
Faced with a barrage of information and disinformation, we should be able to rely on editors to tell us not just what is interesting and true, but what is more or less important and to show us a path through all the data endlessly thrown at us. If journalists don’t do that, then we might as well rely on social media to throw random news at us.
What is news design and why do we miss it? It is the use of the various elements of the news product like words, headlines, pictures, typography, graphics and colour to help the consumer navigate their way through the news. Whereas newspapers 50 years ago were densely packed with type and headlines of one size, thrown together in an apparently random way, more recent design uses all these elements to chart a road map. Glance at a modern front or home page and you will instinctively know what is most important, what is less important and be able to quickly and easily find what interests you.
If it is a big news day, like a war breaking out, then the scale of the headline will tell you immediately. If it is a quiet day, then the design will reflect that. If a piece is a column or opinion rather than hard news, that will be clearly signaled.
These design tools are essential doing what journalists should be doing in this time of information overload: not just throwing the news at you, but ensuring it is prioritized, ordered and easy to consume. That is what we do and social media doesn’t do.
Many of the best international newspapers have taken these principle from print onto their websites and their apps, making them a pleasure to read because they are designed by someone who knows how to use all the elements to make it easy for you. The page is designed around the material, to make the post of the available stories and pictures.
Not ours. Our newspaper pages – whether on print or online – are mostly formulaic, looking almost identical each day as new material is dropped into a tired template. Whether it is the outbreak of global warfare, or some routine intra-ANC squabbling, the only change made is usually the words.
Quite often, our sites and their apps just post stories as they come in, so that something is at the top just because it is new, and something of world-changing significance might be lower down and have the same size headline. There is no hierarchy of news and importance. Such a site or app is not doing its work. It reflects an obsession with getting news out first, beating social media, rather than trying to help the consumer make sense of it.
This is no minor matter. We can get news from social media and keep track of developments there. What we need from journalists is to sift out what is important, to verify it, to contextualise it and to help us understand it and its significance. If journalists do not do that, then they serve little purpose.
Many of our editors and outlets are just throwing news at us in a way that just adds to the mess of information we are dealing with, leaving us to do the hard work of sifting the wheat from the chaff.
The reasons for this lies mostly with management that either does not much understand news, or won’t spend what it takes to use a good designer and give them the tools they need, such as a more sophisticated software platform that gives the team more control and flexibility.
One of the great advantages of the internet is the scope it gives for visual storytelling, combining the work of writers, graphic artists, photographers, videographers, animators and others. At the cutting edge, this has enriched news storytelling at a time when the competition for time and attention is intense.
This requires investment in difficult financial times. But it is short-sighted not to make that investment. I have little doubt that, that those who do not spend to attract and hold the audience with all available tools will slowly lose audience as they find little being added to their news experience.
*Harber is director of the Campaign for Free Expression and Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits U.