No. 2: Layoffs, buyouts change the face of design

There’s no getting around it: 2008 was the year of the layoff.

The forecast was already grim for U.S. newspapers. We all know the story of sliding circulation, increased competition online and the rapid reduction in revenue.

Then, when the economy tanked, it suddenly got worse for news organizations. The method of choice for handling the financial crisis quickly became cutting payroll.

By Erica Smith’s count on her running log called “Paper Cuts,” newspapers lost more than 15,586 jobs in 2008. That’s a number that does not include other news organizations. That’s just newspapers.

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No one was immune

The nation’s most-respected titles cut journalists. Even the large national players – The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times – joined the major metros and small-circulation papers in shedding staff. Tribune and Gannett went chain-wide. The quest for cost-savings was on.

At the San Jose Mercury News, where I was an editor for the last eight years, the news staff was down to about 175 when I took a buyout in March. The Merc became a poster child for the epic highs and lows facing papers of similar size. At the height of the dot-com peak in 2000, the paper boasted a news staff of close to 450. Some fall.

We were far from alone in Silicon Valley, though. Plenty of the country’s best designers left their daily newspaper jobs, some by choice but many more by being laid off.

The face of news design began changing quickly, in probably the most significant way since pagination swept into newsrooms nearly three decades ago. Amazing talent has simply taken off, reluctant to weather yet another storm in the name of journalism. Designers have fled to other, safer enterprises.

‘It’s the best time to be a news designer’

But, as we mentioned in earlier posts for this Year in News Design review, the layoffs and buyouts have brought with them a new set of opportunities. Change begets change.

We’re not being disingenuous when we say we believe it’s the best time to be a news designer. (Whether it feels like that or not.)

The new skills that news organizations need are exactly suited to design thinking. The revolution that designers were able to stage nearly 30 years ago, well, that’s exactly the kind of information revolution that’s happening now. That conversation about presentation has begun happening with online interfaces and extends to the print products of the future, though we know they won’t be the behemoth papers of the past.

Seeing the way, prototyping and iterating toward news goals, has always been the unique contribution that design makes in helping make complex information easier to understand.

Now, more than at maybe any other point in our craft’s history, design has a crucial role in shaping how journalism looks and feels moving into other forms of delivery. Revolutionary thinking has begun to take root in design for online and mobile devices.

It’s an exciting moment as new tools allow pioneering ways to tell stories.

We’re on the brink of major breakthroughs in news design, many of which we have seen start to fertilize this year. There are many more to come.

The path ahead can be forged – like it was three decades ago when the Society’s founding members saw a need for advancing the conversation – by people smart enough to see how design matters.

Trust us, design matters now more than ever.

2008: The Year in News Design

Matt Mansfield is vice president of the Society and an associate professor for the Medill School of Journalism.