World’s Best: A judges’ eye view

For five top visual journalism experts from across the globe it’s been an intense, busy, inspirational – and snowy – weekend in Syracuse.

These five – J. Bruce Baumann, Dennis Brack, Miguel Gomez, Lily Lu and Margaret O’Connor – were kind enough to share some observations before the big announcement of the winners.

Here are their answers.

1. The discussion of the state of the newspaper industry has been going at a fever pitch. Seeing what you’ve seen thus far in Syracuse, how do you assess the state of the industry, as seen through the pages you’ve flipped through?

Brack: The state of the printed segment of our industry seemed either heart warming or heart breaking depending on what publication I examined. There was a bit of gray between, but, overall, my impression is one of lofty heights and deep valleys. And this was especially true among North American newspapers. For instance, several mid-size U.S. dailies that formerly batted beyond their league consistently, day in and day out, were noticeably diminished in ways that are clearly a consequence of economic travails. No surprise, of course.

Having just typed the above doom and gloom, not all is doom and gloom. Even at the financially challenged U.S. regional papers where the daily report has suffered, coverage of local special events and major news stories often excelled. And I saw several impressive examples of meaty investigative/accountability reporting presented with impact and clarity.

Elsewhere in the world, where papers have been comparatively less economically impacted for a variety of reasons, the state of our industry appears more hopeful. Why? For me, it boils down to this: Desperate times did not lead successful papers to abandon the qualities that made them uniquely valuable to their readers. These publications remained faithful to their iconic personalities. Instead, they built on familiar design identities and STILL pushed the limits of visual storytelling, when appropriate.

Baumann: I think we all saw some really good work. But, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that we also saw a grasping at straws mentality in many newspapers.  Many of the publications were floundering in their attempt to find direction. Replacing hard news coverage with features and other soft stories.

Downsizing was clearly evident. This was not just the case of reducing web size, but local news coverage. I’m assuming that is the result of cutting staff.

My personal opinion is you can’t shrink your way to greatness – or profitability.

On a more positive note, the international newspapers as a whole appear to be thriving. Many were filled to the brim with advertising, publishing in-depth stories, and designing with a sophistication that we wished for our own publications.

Gomez:La buena noticia es que los diarios en papel siguen vivos y yo soy un optimista en este sentido, creo que los diarios tendrán que seguir buscando su espacio de convivencia con otras plataformas. En las páginas de este año me encontré con muchas sorpresas agradables, diarios con mucho tiraje, especialmete de Europa y Asia, páginas muy interesantes que invitan a ser leídas y que aprovechan las ventajas del papel para ofrecer excelentes fotos, además de gráficos e ilustraciones de mucha calidad que ayudan a contar historias. Sin embargo, Los efectos de la crisis global se notan especialmente en América, donde los diarios han tenido que apretatse el cinturón reduciendo el peronal y el número de páginas, lo que provoca páginas donde los avisos y el contenido compiten por cada centímetro disponible y la información se presenta utilizando maquetas prehechas que no siempre funcionan con las historias del día, lo que afecta especialmete a la edición de imágenes y al “storytelling” en general.

Translation: The good news is that the newspapers in paper are alive and I am optimistic in this sense. I believe that the newspapers will have to follow looking for its space of coexistence with other platforms. I pages of this year I was with many pleasant surprises, newspapers by far tiraje, especially from Europe and Asia, pages very interesting that they invite to be read and take advantage of the qualities of the
paper to offer excellent photos, also graphs and illustrations of much quality that help to tell stories. Nevertheless, the effects of the global crisis are noticeable, especially in America, where the newspapers have had to tighten the belt by reducing the personnel and the number of pages, which causes pages where the ads and the content compete for each centimeter available and the information appears using outdated models that don’t always work with stories of the day, which especially affects the editing of images and ” storytelling” generally.

Lu: Though I don’t have an exact number, but my impression is at least half of the entries were from outside of US. In terms of news design principles, too many U.S newspapers looked as if were put together in a hurry by inexperienced hands. These are the telltale signs of condition of the industry: large number of experienced news designers left newsrooms across North America continent. Visual journalism as a profession appears to be in distress.

O’Connor: In general, there seems to be a more visible slow-down in American papers than in those from other countries. While we saw lots of heart and soul still at work in American visual journalism, newsholes do seem smaller. Most papers have downsized their overall format to a narrow web and there are fewer flashy illustrations, less expensive photography, etc. One can assume the money is going toward the web or simply survival.

In those publications from elsewhere in North America, Europe and beyond, I saw more new energy and experimentation, as well as a more luxurious use of space and the continuation of extra-wide formats.

There were also fewer entries for SND31, a trend that has continued over the last few years. I assume this is because many papers have either gone out of business, have so downsized that they are less happy with their design, or just don’t want to spend the entry money.

2. Much has been said of the Web’s ability to communicate breaking news. Do you see different kinds of news judgments on the pages of 2009 versus one, five or ten years ago? What about newshole and physical size of publications? Would you be able to identify any wider trends with regard to play and product?

Brack: Of course the Web continues to force newspapers to adapt – or try to adapt with varying degrees of success. Personally, the papers that seemed to offer the most promising formula to retain their place in the contemporary media diet were those that that exploited the advantages of their medium: print. Breaking news: You can’t pretend to compete with animated interactive video on a static newspaper page. So, please don’t try – you’ll lose, and your print edition will become irrelevant.

How do papers try too hard to adapt? Gimmicky, meaningless, poorly executed and sometimes obnoxious visual approaches to the front page, for one. In an attempt to seem relevant, dozens of papers I saw overwhelmed their top narrative and visual stories with design schemes that, in light of day on newsprint, appeared to be amateurish in contrast with digital media.

But, of course, there’s evidence of positive adaptation, too. More publications are embracing print as a canvas to display photography, illustration, text and information graphics in ways that cater to the strength of the medium. Both narrative text and visual stories, for instance, are more analytical and explanatory. Personally, I found that the most successful practitioners of this approach were European weekly papers that, long before the Web, had to provide unique value beyond purely delivering incremental news.

Baumann: Well, there aren’t any 54-inch webs anymore. That, in combination with the economy, has clearly hurt the daily newspaper. A question that should be asked of every publisher in the country is, “How can you justify your newspaper’s price, when you’re cutting the newshole?”

I don’t think the Web is killing newspapers. I think public ownership, analysts and scared publishers are the main problem. As my mother used to say, “Man up.” Ride out the storm and see where we land when the economy turns around. I remember the days when a ten percent profit was a good return. Forget those 30 and 40 percent days – that’s history. Local ownership may be the answer to saving newspapers in the long run.

Gomez:La presencia de Internet es innegable y se nota que los diarios hacen esfuerzos cada día para integrar las dos plataformas, sin embargo no encontré nada que realmente fuera diferente a lo que ví el año pasado. Con relación ha hace cinco y diéz años, si hay muchas mejoras, Los diarios promueven en el papél contnidos adicionales y están entendiendo que print y online deben trabajar juntos en el ciclo de vida de las historias, hay que destapar la historia en internet y darle seguimiento en print y luego volver al web para extenderla aprovechando las ventajas de cada medio en beneficio del lector. En cuanto al tamaño de la página impresa, algo que llamó mi atención es  el formato extradamente vertical de la mayoría de los diarios en Estados Unidos, me pareció un tamaño complicado que en cierta manera,
complica la presentación de historias. Otra historia son los diarios alemanes que son enormes y en general hacen un excelente uso del espacio, si embargo, no me imagino leyendo uno de ellos en el metro. En relación a tendencias, Los diarios se están volviendo más sencillos y ordenados, se preocupan más por la calidad del contenido (texto e imágenes) y utilizan el diseño para organizar y guiar al lector más
que para distraer.

Translation: The presence of the Internet is undeniable and it’s noticeable that newspapers make an effort every day to integrate the two platforms. Nevertheless, I found nothing that was really different from what I
saw the past year. With relation to the past five and ten years, if there are many improvements, newspapers promote in the paper’s content additionally and are understanding that print and online must work together in the lifecycle of stories, it is necessary to open the story on the Internet, to follow it in print and soon to return to the Web to extend it taking advantage of the advantages each means to the benefit of the reader. As far as the size of the printed page, something that called my attention is the extreme vertical format of
the majority of newspapers in The United States. It seemed to me a complicated size that in certain way, complicates the presentation of stories. Another story is that the German papers are enormous and
generally make an excellent use of space. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine reading one of them in the metro. In general, the newspapers are becoming simpler and ordered, they worry more about the quality of
the content (text and images) and use the design to organize and to guide the reader more than to distract.

Lu: Previous years’ trend setting newspapers now looked old, tired and stuck. I saw several pleasant to read, not overly designed and visually screaming, weeklies. Each issue had a good mix use of visual elements, such as using of typography, photos, infographics, illustrations and colors; all worked together harmonically to tell the stories. Well planed and successfully executed, they seemed to know who they are and communicate the confidences visually with their readers. I will not call my observation as a trend, but hope it will become one soon.

O’Connor: Yes. News “feature” stories, follow-ups, investigative pieces and special reports are more part of what one sees in the daily papers, as opposed to years past. Front pages, in general, seem less newsy and immediate. The newspaper front pages that scream, “read all about it” are gone.

3. Any regional observations, different sentiments from different parts of the world?

Baumann: I may have already answered part of that question. It seems clear to me that public ownership and greed are the main problems.

Weeklies, and small and medium-size dailies have the best chance of figuring out the new business model. Content, storytelling and thoroughly covering their communities ¬- especially government – will win the hearts and minds of subscribers for a long time to come.

People know when their community is not covered well by professional journalists. Citizen journalism is a copout for cheap reporting. That will come back to bite some publishers in the ass, if it hasn’t already done so.

I decided this weekend I want to believe in reincarnation. When I come back I want to be born in Sweden.

Gomez: Interesante pregunta, Cuando comparas periódicos de diferentes países, lo primero que notas es que los diarios de cada regíon tienden a parecerse, esto fué notorio especialmete en Alemania, donde la mayoría son grandes, muy organizados y con impresionantes fotos e ilustraciones; Estados Unidos y los países nórdicos.

Translation: Interesting question, when you compare newspapers of different countries, it is first noted that the newspapers of each region tend a to look alike, this was well-known especially in Germany, where the majority are great, very organized and with impressive photos and illustrations; The United States and the Nordic countries.

Lu: In general, I think that European newspapers have done better jobs in overall quality controls. I’m happy to see we had more Chinese entries this year than last year and hope we will have more next year.

O’Connor: Perhaps we’ll see more publications becoming specialists, as opposed to general news reports. There are some exciting weeklies emerging, and at least one committee member predicts this may be the future for many papers. A lesser need for breaking news does present an opportunity to rethink the daily rush and backbreaking production cycles. China is a place to watch, as there seems to be fresh interest in news design coming from there.

4. How’s the weather out there?

Brack: The weather? It’s downright balmy compared to the Snow Capital of the free world.

Gomez? Hace mucho frío, pero no tanto cómo yo me imaginaba, no he tenido oportunidad de usar mi gorro ni mi bufanda.

Translation: It is very cold, but not as much I imagined, I have not had the opportunity to use my cap nor my scarf.

Lu: The weather is lovely up in Syracuse.
O’Connor: If this is a literal question, then, quite literally, it’s a wee bit colder than New York and there is a pleasant daily snowfall that doesn’t seem to do much harm, but is pretty to look at.

Baumann: It sucks.