Last days of the dinosaurs

Full image.

The 2014/2015 presentation. [William Couch]

hARRIS Seigel, the Nils Lofgren look-alike who is one of the stars of the SND, had a header on his slide presentation reading, “Society of News Dinosaurs.” Seigel showed work from the hilarious Asbury Park Press feature section which uses real people in large numbers to tell stories, usually involving alcohol.

Not everyone in Orlando had such an entertaining, narrative-rich answer to And not that many are thinking about it. Most of the designers there, the design directors, assistant managing-editors-for-presentation and up—there was not an editor in sight, had much to say about the decline of their companies' stocks on wall street, which as an industry is a melting ice cap in an age of global warming.

These guys aren't dinosaurs, they’re polar bears, still thinking more about fish than how to get south before the ice bridge is gone.*

The SND offered some useful tactical sessions on increasing the yield of fish. Nanette Bisher of the San Francisco Examiner, a warm-hearted designer who single-handedly eliminates the need of an HR department, gave series of useful tips on how to manage up. She should write it into a self-help bestseller.

Michael Whitley, of the Los Angeles Times, delivered a seriously intellectual analysis of how newsrooms work as a culture, and how to advance your ideas within them. Most editors-in-chief lack his insight into ways to make the system work better.

Yet, there were no presentations about the business of the business. They talked about InDesign and Flash (favorite button of the convention: Martin Gee's “Fuck CCI”), but offered tactics to deal with the unholy combination of dim-sighted stock analysts and illiterate media buyers, which is delivering successive head punches to the stock prices and the revenues of the newspaper industry.

Of course, markets are seldom fair, but the issue that the SND crowd needs to think about is how to take over the business before it is gone.

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The big exception were the keynoters: Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson, who rose out of Poynter a couple of years ago to issue the Dr. Stangelove-like Flash piece, Epic 2014.

David Berlow, my partner at the Font Bureau, predicted the demise of the print editions of newspapers in 20 years, some 15 years ago. These young oracles suggested the opposite, that The New York Times will abandon its online efforts in the year 2014 as a way to deal with the Google-zon, which had taken over the delivery of news. Off line, the Times, would be safe from the bots, and would continue to be read by “the elite and the elderly.”

From all accounts (I missed the keynotes as part of my arrive-late-leave-early conference strategy), these guys did stir them up. William Couch, the even younger winning SND intern from the University of Michigan, summarized Sloan and Thompson’s summary, in two sets:

  1. Your audience becomes your co-author.
  2. You design a story to grow over time.
  3. You design a story to be understood in 10 seconds or less.
  4. Your story is a spreadsheet.
  5. You design a story to be used in different ways by different people.
  1. You don't just design a story—you design a tool.
  2. You make a story you can play.
  3. You embrace complexity.
  4. You embrace ugly.
  5. You realize the power of links.

It is, of course, essential that the business understand the impact of the Internet communications explosion. But I did not hear much talk after the keynote in terms about following up on these action items for the print editions. They're some big issues here:

  • How you get citizen journalists to actually do your work for you? (Viz., Your Hub vs. Bayosphere).
  • What do you do to save the revenues of the print editions in the time left before web revenues pay for the newsroom.
  • How do you drive traffic to print, instead of just fromoprint to the web?
  • How do you promote the long-form narrative experiences in print, both text and pictures, which is still easier on the reader than the scrolling, flickering web pages, and the accompanying jerky slide shows? (Slogan: “It’s already printed out!”)

* A year ago for the Houston SND convention, in a piece for the SND journal I compared that meeting to the convention of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1959. Jets had brought cheap air travel, but the members were still talking whining about management and about how to improve their benefits.

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Unsolicited advice to organizers of future SND workshops

  1. Run one series of seminars in one big room, each 20 minutes rather than three simultaneous sets of 1-hr lectures. (SND thinks their members have long attention spans—just like their editors suppose readers have).
  2. You can always run "early-bird" practical workshops starting at 7:00 for those who need something to get their boss to pay for their registration.
  3. Arrange the room with chairs behind rows of table.
  4. Put in free wireless Internet access everywhere.
  5. Provide one 30-minute break in the morning and one in the afternoon.
  6. Make an inviting gathering area outside the main hall for random encounters, networking, and job-hunting. That’s where exhibits go, and/or sponsor’s card tables.
  7. Lay on continual free coffee and soft drinks. Get sponsors if need be, but you can't charge for coffee at conference for goodness sake. Encourage people to mingle, not to disperse.
  8. Put out plenty of free copies of the Boston Globe, the Herald, The New York Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times , and any other papers that whose designers can arrange to ship in.
  9. Avoid holiday weekends and destination cities.
  10. Can’t we go to St. Tropez or Zihuatenejo instead of Orlando and Las Vegas? And if you have to go those destinations, can’t you find a hotel farther off the main Interstate that doesn’t have a swimming pool that looks like a theme park?

(Note on my credentials, or lack of: I helped organized two big type conferences, Type 1987 in New York and Type90 in Oxford, which, I believe, led to the reasonably successful and annual ATypI conferences. On the negative side I , planned two conferences for the SPD, which although great fun and fairly interesting, were under-promoted and lost money, which could not have stopped the slide of their executive director toward becoming the Martha Stewart of publication design.)

Your Thoughts (4 comments)

2006-09-11 by Bill Gaspard

Unsolicited advice noted

Well, I can't stop the conference from coming to Las Vegas... in fact, I asked for it to be here. St. Tropez will have to wait. In my last meeting as president, I talked at length in a SND board meeting about coming together more often and not having too many tracks. Dan Zedak was there and I believe that he and the Boston crew are going to try to steer the convention in a slightly different direction. I am already blocking out the 2008 workshop to secure rooms at the hotel and am doing the same. One thing about the 2008 workshop that will really make it different is that we'll have one day where we'll have some joint sessions with APME and APPM (Associated Press Managing Editors and Photo Managers). I'm down with numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 and 8 (in varying degrees... not planning on starting anything at 7am). Number 4 I'd love if I can get the sponsor. Number 9, it won't be on a holiday weekend. Number 10, it will be off the Strip and while the pool doesn't look like a theme park, it really is very nice. More suggestions are welcome!

2006-09-14 by Roger Black

On to Las Vegas!

Joint meetings with APME AND APPM is a real plus . . . I can pledge at least one sponsor — and folks like CCI ought to buy some coffee and hand out their own buttons. One model the Boston folks might check out is the MPA/ASME conference, which has a single track and fast pacing, including 5-minute spotlights. Of course we know publishers and editors have even shorter attention spans than art directors.

2006-09-15 by Chris Olds

Good stuff

Good stuff about SND. Enjoyed the chat at the lunch.

2007-04-11 by Joe Knowles

Whistling in the graveyard

Amen. SND's relevance is increasingly diminished with each conference I attend. The huge number of awards this year was an embarrassment, especially when you consider the plight of the industry. The topper, for me, was the 'world's best designed' newspaper awards -- all four from outside North America, including one from Estonia for God's sake. How can we possibly take this seriously? Can we really believe the judges understood the content they were evaluating? Come on.

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