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Brass Tacks Design

Buried deep within AJR's recent cover story on the decline of newspapers, (Adapt or Die," June, 2006) is this sentence: “The Washington Post's weekday circulation is down nearly 30,000 from a year ago.”

All summer I've been wondering when the The Washington Post was going to do something and what they they were going to do. The first inkling appeared this week in the form of a memo from Executive Editor Len Downie.

Much has been made of the staff cutbacks and newshole reductions he announced. But there's some good news for those of us who think that design is important, the two most important points being:

    • Greater emphasis on visuals, and
    • Shorter stories

Well, hallelujah! The Washington Post has finally realized what the rest of the industry has known for years – that visuals matter and that people aren't reading most of the text newspapers publish.

Many people have been making the case for visuals even before USA Today proved the importance and value of design and informational graphics. And design consultant Tim Harrower has made a strong case for “short form” for quite some time. These short-form examples from Time Magazine are proof positive that 30-inch narratives aren't always the best way to present information.

Here are the details from Downie:

On story length: “We will take a new approach to story length, which remains an important challenge, despite the progress already made in some parts of the paper. We will soon publish story length guidelines for the staff, along with ways to adhere to them. Our goal is for the newspaper to be filled with stories of different sizes and forms – and to provide both reporters and editors the tools to better edit for length. Our philosophy will be that every story must earn its length, so readers will want to read and finish more stories.”

On visuals: “We will better coordinate the preparation of related stories, photographs and graphical elements – and the design of pages on which they will appear. Visual journalism will be given still more importance in the printed paper.”

So what does this mean to the rest of us who work outside the beltway? First, it provides legitimacy to our call for shorter stories and alternative story-telling devices. Second, it elevates the importance of photographs, illustration, informational graphics, design and all the people who create this content and perform these tasks.

We “visual” people have always been worthy of respect. We can help newspapers boost readership and revenue. Finally, The Washington Post agrees.

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