A Q&A with Gannett’s Kate Marymont

After Gannett recently announced plans to create five centralized centers to handle most of the design demands at its community newspapers, the Society for News Design responded with an open letter on the value of design. That letter is posted here.

Kate Marymont is vice president for news of the Gannett Company.

Kate Marymont is vice president for news of the Gannett Company.

Kate Marymont is the Vice President/News at Gannett’s community publishing division, and she took some time to respond to the letter and the following Q&A conducted by SND Secretary/Treasurer Jonathon Berlin to shed light on Gannett’s vision, not only for its hubs but also all aspects of its approach to visual journalism:

Can you briefly tell us about your job and how the Design Centers fit into it?

My primary responsibility is to work closely with the editors of our 80 community news organizations to promote great journalism. We have identified top priorities for journalists as: watchdog journalism; carefully delineated content for the different platforms on which we publish; superior Sunday print editions; and community leadership. My department offers training, provides feedback and administers contests to support these priorities. We believe that Design Centers can help us produce the more sophisticated newspapers that print readers expect.

Central design hubs, in one form or another, have been talked about for years among various newspaper chains. Can you describe the factors and process that lead to Gannett’s plan?

There is one key factor: We want to provide top-notch, exclusive local content and print design is an important part of that. We believe that we can build superior design more effectively in five locations than trying to do it in 80 locations.

The process: We’ve been experimenting. Of our 80 newspapers, 32 are designed, paginated and — in a few cases — copy-edited at other sites. We’ve tested the communication that is needed, built the relationships that are needed and proven to ourselves that the concept works. We weighed outside vendors but wanted Gannett designers handling our print journalism.

The timetable in various reports is two years. Can you tell us what the next couple years might look like?

The CCI NewsGate system will be installed across the company, starting with Asbury Park and Nashville in early 2011. After the system is installed, we will begin moving the design work from the assigned sites into the Design Centers. Once we start the system installation, the project will take approximately two years to complete.

It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to say a plan like this would allow Gannett to cut jobs in editing and presentation. Can you give us any indication how many jobs might be eliminated? How do you think hub positions might be filled? Would current Gannett employees apply for jobs at the Centers? Will Gannett add local reporting or interactive positions at papers that lost jobs?

We don’t know how many jobs might be eliminated. We are just beginning this project and a first step is to survey and analyze the work done at each site. Fewer journalists now are strictly designers or copy editors. During a single shift someone might design for print, post digital content, write headlines for print, write headlines for search optimization. Our first step is to get a deep understanding of how the work is done each place. Then we will go about the business of constructing what we need at the Design Centers.

When we finalize the structure of the Design Centers and the jobs that will be needed, we’ll create job descriptions and post them. We certainly hope that Gannett designers see the Design Centers as exciting places to work and a good career path. We want Gannett designers to have first crack at these jobs. Some, we know, won’t choose to relocate. We hope to work with SND to recruit other top talent.

You’ve emphasized the importance of intelligent local information and the role of visual journalism in achieving that. What are some of Gannett’s ideas to get at this in the Design Center model?

Good visual journalism isn’t an afterthought. Editors will have to ensure that the planning of coverage includes the planning of the art elements and presentation. That will remain a local responsibility and my department will need to arrange training to support this. The local editors will be able to work with “site specialists” at the Design Centers in the development of centerpieces, projects, special sections, etc. The page designers will be part of conversations with the local site every day — and throughout the day as news develops.

Will the publications served by the Centers go through redesigns to align typography? Image area? Deadlines?

Our goal is to preserve the individuality of newspapers. Gannett has long stressed the importance of a newspaper reflecting the personality of the community it serves. A newspaper for Palm Springs, Calif., should be very different from a newspaper for Salem, Ore., or Rochester, N.Y.

We will examine efficiencies that won’t hurt that individuality. For example, can cutline styles be standardized? Can sports agate be produced in a single font? We will study things like this.

Our goal also is to preserve deadlines.

Something Kris and Stephen wrote about in their letter is the interaction between different kinds of journalists in the newsroom and how that plays an important role in smart design. How do you foresee interaction going between a local newsroom and a Design Center? What do you think will be gained and lost compared to how it works now?

We’ve tested this concept using CCI in a design hub in Louisville, Ky., that produces the newspapers for Louisville, Greenville, S.C., and Asheville, N.C. The editors of those three newspapers all say that there is seamless communication. Now that they are accustomed to the process, the editors point out that there’s not much difference between sending a budget and instructions across the room or across two states. CCI allows editors to watch the development of pages at every step and offer feedback.

The editors in the Louisville test will also tell you that they had to work to get a smooth system in place. Relationships had to be created. Communication methods had to be sorted out to determine what was most effective.

In the end, I believe we will gain creative, innovative design in more newspapers than we could individually. In the short run we may lose some of the easy back-and-forth that visual journalists have with others in newsrooms now, but the Louisville test shows that we can establish good relationships.

One of the neat things about SND is the organization brings a number of like-minded folks together. As we take part in this conversation about Gannett and our industry on a larger scale, what do you think designers should be talking about as we face these challenges?

What is the right design for print, for traditional web sites and for new digital platforms? How do evolving platforms affect traditional news delivery? What training is needed to keep visual journalists and their colleagues ahead of changing readers? What part of our work can be streamlined or centralized or done differently so that we can focus on great, exclusive local journalism? How can we broaden our brainstorming about design to pull in smart, creative techniques used in other fields?