Drawing a Blank: Two Sides of the NYT White Space Coin

You know, if you’re like me, you’re 6-1 and named Josh.

Also if you’re like me, your first reaction to this morning’s New York Times sports front on the Baseball Hall of Fame passing over Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens went beyond the page itself. The thought process went something like this:

“Well. There’ll be a rush to praise this as the greatest thing to touch paper since, uh … well something cool that touches paper, I don’t know, I’m bad at metaphors, what do you want from me? … and there will be absolutely NO rush to talk critically about it. Aside from the J-School professors asking, ‘What do you think?’ to the chorus of ‘I think it works,’ nobody will try to learn from this. It’ll be great, and that’ll be the end of it.”

But maybe there should be.

There’s a case to be made that we could use this page to enhance communication throughout the world through excellence in visual journalism.

Why would we do that? Why would we use SND-owned bandwidth and today’s NYT sports front for anything besides a coronation?

That’s SND’s mission. It’s not hiding from it.

My impression from six years of blogging about sports design is that once folks form an opinion about page design, it’s pretty set there. Something like this, “You know, as a journalist, there are two sides to every debate. On one side of this argument, there are people who think this page is the (greatest, worst) page to ever come off a press. On the other side, are brain-dead idiots.”

Social media references to today’s NYT sports front include the following: Bold. Ballsy. Daring. Perfect.

Sports Editor Joe Sexton was quoted on ESPN this morning: “A striking, profound image of emptiness.”

So that’s the reaction. With that setup, what if we, as visual journalists, thought critically about this page today? What if, instead of praising it, we examined both the reasons for and against the approach. And what if we did all that, and then we formed our opinions about it, and we applied that to our jobs tonight?

Let’s give it a shot. There will be no conclusions drawn here. Only presenting both sides. It’s acceptable to love this page. It’s acceptable to dislike it. You want to hear empty praise of brilliance and daringness? That’s what Twitter, Facebook and blogs are for. You want to think critically and learn from it, back-and-forth? Let’s go.

It’s bold and unexpected. It grabs your attention

Make no mistake, the NYT’s Old Gray Lady moniker is as dated as baseball’s Hall of Fame selection process. The paper’s inside pages routinely set and raise the bar in print newspaper design, and the paper’s digital design does the same for visual journalism. See the paper’s series on Derek Boogaard from 2011 for a recent example. This page stops you as a reader. You have to hold that page in your hand, read the cutline and see what it’s all about, and in our postmodern, short-attention-span era, isn’t that what design should do?

It told readers nothing.

Well isn’t that what blank space does? It’s print’s original alternative, and NYC’s a hipster town anyway, right? That’s beside the point. The snub of the superstars was widely anticipated, and the Hall electing nobody had been predicted universally the day before (It’s also happened twice before). Read your paper’s runup stories. The NYT used three fourths of a page to tell us that nobody was selected, which if we didn’t know would happen, we knew was likely. A picture is worth a thousand words, and blank space is worth one sentence.

It’s a cover. What more NEEDED to be said out there?

Section fronts aren’t sitting in racks to sell papers. They don’t have substantial above/below the fold value. Sports fronts in particular, should be talkers. They should make you say to your neighbor at work, or the gas station attendant AFTER you buy the paper, “Wow. Check out what they did on their sports cover.” And that’s the daily print newspaper equivalent of paying it forward. That’s exactly what the Times got out of this page. Moreover, the NYT has the space inside for all the analysis it can provide. Nothing was shortchanged on this page.

It looks like a mistake.

There’s no argument here, it looks like a production error. It may also look like a profound page, but it looks like a production error too. I imagine NYT printing facilities around the country calling the desk Wednesday night going, “Hey, what’s up with this?” If you are a writer at the NYT, and you wrote a 40-inch analysis piece that DID further the news we already knew, how do you feel about being bumped inside for what looks like a mistake? How would you feel if a storytelling photo or graphic was bumped inside in favor of a story written in ipsum text to make a writing point?

It’s cutting-edge design.

One thing we talk about when competitions come around is pushing the limits of the medium. Taking a broadsheet piece of newsprint and telling a story in a way that hasn’t been done before is really difficult. There’s no question this happened here. How many times in a year can you say that about even really good print design, or even the best print design? Moreover, any newspaper, anywhere, even with a resource budget of zero dollars and zero cents, could have designed this page, and a lot of designers woke up today jealous, wondering why it never occurred to them to design a page like this.

It’s overblown.

That’s a hell of a lot of empty space to spend on Craig Biggio not getting in the Hall of Fame. It’s the equivalent of the Los Angeles Times doing a blank page tomorrow in its Calendar section on Affleck, Bigelo and Tarantino getting snubbed by the Oscar nominations. There’s so many questions about the viability of the Hall, so many opinions ripping its exclusivity, and so many issues surrounding an era of baseball history that we watched with our own eyes, and how baseball recognizes it, that we brush aside for blank space.

We could drag this debate out all day. The point isn’t that you have to agree with either side. The point is that you HAVE the debate. That we aren’t afraid to think critically about pages like this. It’s easy to rip on an obviously bad page and it’s easy to exalt a good one. It’s much harder to think critically, but that’s what we’re paid to do. That’s what news judgment is.

If you think about both sides of this coin and you love the page and would have done it, that’s good. But you got there from thinking like an editor. Same thing if you do all that and hate the page. We don’t exist to react like readers. We exist to examine all the possible reader reactions, and then turn around and apply them to our jobs, and that’s what this piece is about.

There’s a separate story to be written — largely outside of the context of this debate — about the process and how this page came together. I think we can learn from that too. But I have a day job, so that can wait a beat.

About Josh Crutchmer

is design and graphics editor at The Plain Dealer.

15 comments

Josh,
While reading this, I had to laugh a little. Your point-counterpoint is almost verbatim to the discussion we had in the newsroom last night. There were definitely two sides of thought. The idea (Wayne Kamidoi) was risky, but it had the backing of the sports editor, who trusts his design team. Some folks were very vocal in opposition. Wayne, who has some of the best design instincts in the world, stuck to his guns. I’m a little biased, but he was right.
Thanks for this discussion. You’re right, we should do it more often.

Sam. Sometimes I think that reaction — positive or negative — to something can overtake the much more healthy discussion. The NYT hasn’t just earned, it owns, the right to presume all bases were covered. At the same time, if there’s someone out there at maybe a smaller outlet who just sees the printed result and wants to take a similar approach — tomorrow or five years from now — I really hope they have these types of discussions too.

I’m glad to hear that, Sam. My fear is that most newsrooms don’t have the time, resources or passionate visual journalists to have this debate anymore. But I’m really glad that we could have this conversation via Josh’s excellent commentary.

My other fear is that these designs often start from ideas that aren’t coming from the designer but from someone who wants the design to “make a statement” or “do something that will get us noticed.” This sometimes puts the designer in an unenviable position of having to come up with something that is starting not from the content itself but from a more unnatural or manufactured place. And that’s never been easier to do than now that there are far fewer visual journalists in most newsrooms. I don’t know if that was the case here at all, but I do know that I’ve long admired and idolized Wayne’s work and continue to do so today.

Years ago, on the “Lou Grant” TV show, actor Mason Adams as the executive editor is leading the afternoon news meeting. The LA city council had just gone into closed-door session and the reporter got bupkus out of the meeting. So the fictional editor at this fictional paper demanded a big chunk of the front page to be white space under a headline saying City Council Meets.

NYT, it was done on a “Mary Tyler Moore” spinoff show.

It’s not as clever as some people believe. But I often say that about PFADs.

The next verse of this tune is to suggest alternatives because, after all, this HAD to be the way to go, right? Here goes. I’d suggest an illustration, but too often these days those are juvenile, poorly done, and loose with facts and context.

I’d suggest a photo of something — perhaps an empty ball field, or a snow-covered outfield or pitcher’s mound — but those types of ideas are rejected out of hand.

We could go on like this, but for the better part of a decade and a half, the general theme has been to proclaim a published page the GREATEST. I don’t see it this time.

I think it was an irresponsible use of the blank page. The Baseball Hall of Fame has had an empty year 14 times!!! Why does this year deserve this much attention?

I remember seeing a similar idea from a publication on the one-year anniversary of 9/11. The page was blank, with the words “A moment of silence” typed small in the middle of the page. I think that was a better use of white space because that and the typography told a story that made sense to the reader. Also, Sept. 11, 2002 was a really big event. Again, this event in baseball has happened 14 times. I think the NYT used a really bold idea on a story that didn’t deserve it, and they could get criticized if a bigger story down the line arises which deserves a blank cover and they use it again.

Furthermore, this year, with the implications of the PED/steroid era perhaps tainting the voting process was too big not to have on the cover. Readers could see this but not know why no one was elected, or they could think there was an error if they didn’t know no one was elected prior to seeing this page. I think there needs to be an explanation of no one being elected.

Josh, thanks for your thoughts. Any debate about the visuals of the print product is refreshing to read.

Sometimes we lose track that there still can be power in print to “make a statement” or “do something that will get us noticed.” You don’t necessarily need hours to discuss an issue, but do take a moment to consider the ultimate visual message you might be sending.

The best debates (and results) often happen when the visual side argues AGAINST going overboard with a preconceived vision. With sports design, we have the luxury of a longer leash, use it to your advantage. But within reason.

Two Cents’ Worth
An era’s greatest pitcher and hitter — Clemens and Bonds — not even close to getting voted into the Hall of Fame: Attention and explanation needed to be paid to this story. For NYT article, see Page A1.

Here’s my confusion, Wayne. You talk in your last paragraph about Clemens and Bonds not making the Hall, which was the biggest story out of the Hall of Fame ballot. I don’t think there’s really any debate about that.

But the centerpiece was focused on no one making the Hall of Fame, which would point to the fact that Biggio and Piazza didn’t get to 75% as the most important story from the Hall of Fame vote. After all, if Biggio gets xx mote votes, this centerpiece isn’t valid anymore because someone – not the generations’s best hitter and pitcher – but someone, got in.

So what “statement” were you trying to say with this: that a great Astros second baseman got hosed? Or that Bonds, Clemens, Sosa got hammered by the baseball writers? Both? Everything? What was the ultimate visual message you wanted to provide here?

I don’t think anyone had any doubt that print has the power to make a statement, especially a paper like the NYT. You’ve certainly proven that here. I find this conversation fascinating.

I’m glad that NYT changed the headline on its later edition.

In my opinion, “Welcome to Cooperstown” obscured the visual pun. No wonder few felt that the design is a bit empty.

“And the Inductees Are…” superbly brings together the conceit and the drama — or the humor, if you will.

Always let your headline talk to your visual. Probably the greatest lesson to be learned here.

Rob, to try to answer your question:

After submitting “a sketch to my sports editor early Wednesday morning, the note was prefaced with an “IF nobody gets elected …” In fact, it wasn’t even drawn out. I emailed to Joe Sexton and our baseball editor:

“A concept to toss out:
Page topper that says HALL OF FAME INDUCTEES: CLASS OF 2013
Then a total blank area with an agate line at the bottom:
Also receiving votes (75 percent of vote needed for induction): Craig Biggio, 70; Jack Morris 68; Mike Piazza 67; etc.
Below that a Tyler column … or nothing.”

If Biggio and/or Piazza were elected in, I think the sports cover would have had to focus on their admission. Page A1 may have still taken Tyler Kepner’s article explaining the omission of Clemens and Bonds.

Despite what ultimately happened, Plan B — a more traditional cover — was still in the back of our minds about 2 hours before deadline, because we weren’t completely sure the white space really worked.

It’s been interesting to read how the NYT made a dramatic, profound “statement.” I’m not sure that was the intent to either embarrass Cooperstown, trash the voting process or exonerate the use of PED’s and the shallow MLB testing system. That assumption is left to the viewer.

“It’s been interesting to read how the NYT made a dramatic, profound “statement.””

I think only the chronic non-readers, like Sara Quinn and Charles Apple, go that far. Sometimes I think they should make those ViewFinders for the people who just look at the tiny page images and try to judge them.

Most of the rest of this is the usual twisted logic that we get from these discussions. It’s like Billy Bob Thornton playing Twister at the end of that awful “U-Turn” movie. Lots of work, and very ugly to witness.

There’s potentially a great discussion to have about this vote. Too bad the NYT chose not to participate in it with this PFAD.

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