It came as no surprise. Actually, I had been expecting it for months.
But it still took me back a bit when it finally occurred. Perhaps I had lulled myself into believing that I had won them over. Perhaps, I felt, they were finally buying into design as a necessary part of professional newspapering
Nope. Not a chance.
While presenting a workshop to the staff of one of my client newspapers, I was making the point that sometimes the length of a story should be sacrificed for a design that gives that story even greater emphasis.
Well, I hadn’t counted on Bob. Bob had been a reporter for this newspaper for some time. He’d covered it all — and written it all — during his many years with the paper.
Just as I was about to drive my point home, Bob chimed in: “But we’re in the writing business!”
I felt the anger swell within me. It boiled up slowly but forcefully. “I’ve got to be very careful,” I thought. “This is a critical moment, and I have to say just the right thing…in just the right way.”
You could have heard a pin drop — and the floor was carpeted.
I turned toward Bob, leaned close and said: “No, Bob, that’s not true. We are not in the writing business — we are in the business of bringing meaning to people’s lives.”
OK, so the line came from William Zinsser. Zinsser taught writing for years and is the author of “On Writing Well: a Guide to Non-fiction Writing.” If you haven’t read it, do.
Zinsser is right on the mark. We are not writers. Not photographers. Not graphic artists. Not editors. Not designers. We are journalists — and as journalists, our responsibility is to bring meaning to the lives of our readers.
We do that by offering them the total package: writing, photos, graphics, illustration, editing and design.
Each discipline is important in itself, but unless each is accompanied by the others, each is less than it can be.
Like the other disciplines, design is an integral part of the mix.
Without design, a story that may have taken us months to research and report may go unread — simply because it appears too long and imposing.
Without design, we fail to plan properly for the one photo that delivers the message more clearly than any story. How many of us can still see clearly in our minds eye the images from the Challenger explosion? The naked Vietnamese girl running toward the camera after being struck by napalm? Nixon standing at the door of the helicopter, arms held high and fingers in the “V” sign as he left the White House forever?
Without design, we don’t deliver the graphics that reduce piles of incomprehensible numbers to clear, comparable and understandable lines and bars on the page.
Without design, we just don’t do the job right.
No, we are not in the writing business. We are in the business of offering our readers meaning.
Another quote from Zinsser: “Your job is to distill the essence.” He is talking about writing, but his message applies to everything we do as we commit the act of newspapering.
And we distill the essence every time we offer our readers a package that works because it is planned, considered…and designed.