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Designers should heed these lessons from Obama

By Alan Jacobson,
Brass Tacks Design

Newspaper designers have a lot to learn from Barack Obama. For starters, he can help them save their jobs. Here's why:

Recently, Dean Singleton suggested that newspapers consider consolidating their copy desks and moving them offshore to cut costs. Singleton runs MediaNews, which publishes virtually all the papers in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as The Denver Post and other papers across the country. The scope of this initiative is not limited to copyeditors. Singleton says design tasks could move offshore, too.

Design and copy desks have already been consolidated in Florida and Michigan.

And if you think Dean is blowing smoke about moving the whole shebang offshore, think again. Those cost-saving web-width reductions we've been dealing with – from 54 inches to 50 inches and now down to 44 – were Dean's brainchild. I know – I redesigned the first of his papers, which was the first in America to get slimmed in 1995. You may disagree with Dean, but you gotta agree that most newspapers follow his lead.

Dean's comments have already drawn protests from copyeditors – and rightfully so – because their local knowledge is essential for maintaining the accuracy of the local report.

But what about designers? Is it essential that our work be performed in the U.S.A.? That depends upon whether we're journalists or merely Mac mechanics, and the burden of proof falls on us.

Newspapers and designers have been patting themselves on the back for the huge sales of the editions published on Nov. 5. But it wasn't the design of the pages that sold them – it was the historic nature of the content.

Unlike Obama, these page designs didn't break any ground. None of these pages is fundamentally better than this page from The Virginian-Pilot in 1996 – 12 years ago. The Pilot's page had all the chutzpah of last week's Obama pages, without sacrificing all the news content of a typical poster front.

I wish the design of the Obama pages had been as profound these words (I'm paraphrasing): "Rosa sat so Martin could walk. Martin walked so Barack could run."

But I digress. The issue is whether American newspaper designers will keep their jobs in the face of the next round of staff cuts. To do so, they'll need to demonstrate more creativity than they did on Nov. 5 – the kind of creativity that sells the paper, improves the website and makes both of them effective environments for advertising, even on days when no history is made.

It's a tall order, but no tougher than overcoming Hillary Clinton, John McCain and centuries of racial prejudice.

Don't wait for your boss to determine whether you're worth keeping. Prove to the powers that be that your effort has an impact on the bottom line.

If you need some inspiration, look no further than our next president, Barack Obama. If he were a newspaper designer, what kind of campaign would he run to prove his worth? One thing's for sure – he wouldn't waste time putting lipstick on a pig.



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