Charles Apple, one of the primo bloggers at Visual Editors, picked up the discussion about the future of design at newspapers and the troubled Society for News Design, in particular. In Apple's post, he channels Dean Lockwood of the San Antonio Express-News:

“One of the realities we are facing in the industry is that the 'production' act of copy editing and building pages is being either outsourced or consolidated in chain's hubs. I don't agree with it and it's not going to happen everywhere but there is clearly a bean-counter's momentum to this that I doubt is going to be stopped by any arguments we make about story development and so on.”


The comments roll through all the phases of grieving, and include posts from Alan Jacobson describing his redesign-for-ROI approach; others arguing that Alan's just self-promoting; and still others blaming media executives for all ills.

I dug back to find Apple's post and discussion because, frankly, the voices around what SND should become following its leadership crisis seemed to shout and goad for a while, then became really quiet. I find it hard to believe the discussion and debate could end so abruptly, or that so few people could care enough to keep it going.

Here's what I posted as a comment in Apple's thread:

Folks, remember that what pains the newspaper industry today also pains all forms of print, from periodicals to books to posters to billboards.

The way we communicate, one-to-one, one-to-friends, one-to-many and many-to-many, changes by the minute. Since print changes, um, by the decade, people find other, more efficient ways to do things they used to do in print.

Say what you will about tactile quality, well-understood interface, browsability, portability, or readability. Print forms may retain advantages there but in more and more cases they do not overcome digital advantages: instantaneous availability without boundaries, at much lower cost per unit of information communicated.

So the nut graf of this conversation becomes:

Information architects will see high and increasing demand in coming years for their skills and experience. Graphic artists focused on print will see gradually decreasing demand in coming years for their skills and experience.

Given that newspapers are leading the slide down the print crater, graphic artists who do not transition to information architecture might be able to climb back up into another print specialty for a while, but will never return to the glory days where we actually felt we were changing newsroom cultures and winning new readers.

So what is an “information architect”?

In my view, it is someone who thinks of the digital world in three distinct demand camps, with overlaps: communication, entertainment, and information. We play mostly in the information space, which, unfortunately, is the least engaging on average of the three camps.

Don’t believe me? Think about how much time people you know (NOT you, because you're in the news business and that makes you an outlier) spend sending text messages, ordering products, or watching online video vs. actually reading news articles.

So an information architect starts by knowing the difference. Her specialty is optimizing information to be communicated in its best, most efficient form for the broadest possible recipient set. But she does not stop there. She also knows how to engage people in conversations, and form communities, around specific types of information.

In that specialty, the graphic arts have a role, but it is just a small share of defining an overall user experience. A few former print designers I know have made this leap successfully. Others become frustrated at how much left-brain stuff is required, and how little time they spend exercising the right brain.

I know this for sure: Newspaper executives (at least in the United States, at ground zero of the business crisis) are in no mood these days to think of visual journalism as a savior. You get attention only when called on to help save money; for example, a redesign to fit narrower webs. The rest of the time, yeah, nice looking page, Jack, but ad revenue and circulation just fell double-digits again, so, like, cut some more costs … oh, gotta run.

Say what you will about Alan [Jacobson]. His redesign projects start and finish with return on investment in mind. That’s how he gets executives to listen, and those of you trying to inspire change from the design desk outward would be well advised to observe and learn.

Please don't get me wrong. Print will not die for many years, if ever. But staking your success on print alone resembles trying to climb to the top of a mountain that slowly sinks into the earth. Less and less room at the top, more casualties at the bottom. Newspaper people happen to be on the least stable ground.

I believe much of the consternation around SND these days just reflects the frustration and vulnerability we all feel trying to ride the mountain. I would love to help, but I can’t do much if the conversation stays focused on “making graphic design important again in the newsroom,” a futile mission I infer from this and other conversations.