Sometimes being a good designer is not enough.
With the emergence of centralized designed desks and consolidation, the future for journalists who only do design is murky at best.
“I think we’re in a darker place that we’ve been in awhile, unfortunately,” said Scott M. Ladd, lead news designer at the Austin American-Statesman. “You can’t help but feel low morale across the industry when you see design jobs being sliced or “template-driven” design being offered as a solution.”
Many designers are struggling to stay current.
For some, its a matter of trying new things, while others are finding new niches and developing skills once unneeded as a designer in the newsroom. All, though, are seeking answers to the question: how can I stay relevant in this changing environment?
Many designers are multi-tasking in their newsrooms, taking on writing or photo assignments, and contributing online. In shrinking newsrooms, the help is usually welcome.
“Be a reporter. Be a photographer. Be a blogger. Be an online producer,” said Nick Masuda, former senior production editor for sports/features at the Orlando Sentinel who recently moved to Golfweek. “Your unique visual skillset will likely add something to that role that no one in the room had ever seen. You define the role, the role should never define you.”
At the Sentinel, Masuda wrote concert previews and reviews, and often shot photos himself. He covered some of the biggest acts around — U2, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga — but had to earn respect in the new role.
“Seek out advice from editors, from others in similar roles … never act like you know it all,” Masuda said. “Because you don’t.”
Kevin Cobb, a news designer at the South Florida Sun Sentinel, took a simple idea and turned it into something wildly popular. “Overheard in the Newsroom” features thousands of offbeat quotes from anonymous journalists. Cobb started the site in January 2009 and selects which quotes to publish on the site and through social media channels. The site is “Liked” by more than 95,700 people on Facebook, has more than 33,000 Twitter followers and won an Open Web Award from Mashable in 2009.
Lee Steele, who works with four Hearst dailies in southwest Connecticut, recently finished working on and launched a “fairly radical” redesign, which involved more than just a new look. It required long hours and training for staff members but helped him work with new people in the newsroom.
“Demonstrating some level of leadership is valuable when you want to avoid ‘the box,’” he said. Steele also maintains a blog, about area artists and designers, in Bridgeport, Conn.
Sometimes designers need to speak up and be more active. Diversifying your presence in the newsroom is important, Ladd said. “When I first got here in 2003, designers primarily designed the pages,” he said. “In the past few years, going from our redesign/DT conversion, I’ve attempted to put myself in as many departments as possible.”
Ladd noted that every designer at his paper is involved in social media: “It has become part of the culture,” he said, and a job expectation in a growing number of newsrooms. Ladd himself keeps a pop culture blog called Ambient Noise.
Blogging can be an easy way to make the foray into working online.
Shraddha Swaroop, a designer at the Los Angeles Times, writes a personal blog that focuses on food, one of her interests. Blogging, though, has taught her skills that she has been able to bring back to the newsroom.
“I have learned how to work with coding within WordPress and honed my food photography skills,” she said.
Swaroop said she learned PHP, Dreamweaver and Flash online on her own. There are many webinars and online tutorials that offer quick and usually cheap ways to pick up these skills. Online sessions are paced by the user, can be completed any time of day and typically do not require special software.
“If you do not see any opportunities in your newsroom to broaden your skills, then create your own,” Cobb said. “Whether it’s through freelance projects or starting your own site, try something new.”
Steele said it’s important for designers to be part of a professional network, or to simply create their own connections.
“Just for the hell of it, get in the car and take a designer from the next county or state to lunch,” said Steele, who recently organized an SND meetup in Boston. “Our bosses are mingling, and so should you.”
All of the designers working on projects outsides their newsrooms and on projects at the office said finding support is not as tough as you might think.
“It’s easy to get support,” Ladd said. “When you’re dealing with smaller resources, you get a lot more opportunities to do a variety of things.”
– Carrie Cousins is night sports editor at The Roanoke (Va.) Times