Phillip Ritzenberg on SND’s history (and its future)

NOTE FROM PAST PRESIDENT ROB SCHNEIDER: I asked Phillip Ritzenberg, one of the SND’s founders and its only two-term president, to speak at the Awards Banquet at SNDLOU to help commemorate the organization’s 35th anniversary. Ritzenberg’s speech was great and was a highlight of the banquet on Saturday night. In fact, we liked it so much, that we wanted to share it for the rest of the visual journalism community that didn’t get to hear it in person. Enjoy …

—————————

Phil Ritzenberg

Phillip Ritzenberg

You may have heard it said that if you’re introduced in public you should recite two silent prayers. The first, to ask that the person making the introduction says some really nice things about you. And second, to ask forgiveness for liking it so much.

Forgive me, but I did like it and I’m grateful to Josh for what he said. I also appreciate the hospitality of the leadership who have been sort of regarding me as you would an elderly visitor, which I guess I am. But in spite of the fact that I’m 82, I do still try to get work, and I split my own firewood, and, no, this is my own hair.

Rob wanted one of the old-timers help mark the historical moment, since this is the 35th anniversary workshop and, in effect, the 35th anniversary of SND. But rather than walking down memory lane with people you never met — from before many of you were even born — I thought we could do that by looking briefly (I promise briefly) at three things:

  • Why that 1979 workshop was so special.
  • Why SND has mattered for 35 years.
  • And why there may be an exciting future in store for many people in this room.

The idea of 35 years may be pretty abstract for many of you, but if you had to do a little sidebar to put 1979 into a context, you might consider these bullets or points on a timeline:

  • In 1979 the first Macintosh with that sensational 9-inch screen was still five years away.
  • So was the first real layout software — no, not Pagemaker, but Ready, Set, Go, which I still have in version 7.7.8.
  • The first laser printer, from Apple of course, would not appear for six more years.
  • And USA Today, the wake-up call for an entire industry, particularly in this country, would not be launched for another three years.

Issue No. 1 of Design magazine, dated March 1980, appeared with a report of the Chicago workshop of September 1979. Remarkably, it had attracted 150 people from the U.S. and Canada — plus one from Costa Rica. Not bad for a brand-new group that still had no real address or phone number.

So what was special?

Phil Ritzenberg with the call for entries for SND's first competition in 1980. The 35th annual competition will take place in Syracuse in February. (photo courtesy Tim Frank)

Phillip Ritzenberg with the call for entries for SND’s first competition in 1980. The 35th annual competition will take place in Syracuse in February. (photo courtesy Tim Frank)

Reported in a magazine created almost single-handedly by the indefatigable Richard Curtis of Gannett was a full-blown workshop created almost single-handedly by the irrepressible Tony Majeri of the Chicago Tribune. And both were soon followed by the Best of Newspaper Design, 1980, the almost single-handed initiative of Johnny Maupin of Louisville. He called it First Edition and we just received the handsome 34th.

For me that workshop, the first of 35, and that magazine, the first of more than a hundred issues of good design and typography and good journalism — yes, we showed that designers can actually write — these represent the beginnings of a spirit of volunteerism that still persists in SND. The kind of spirit that would make an apparently rational man like our president write about taking on SND leadership in that neat How 2 booklet this past summer, “…know that your primary mission will be to give,… expecting nothing in return.”

But besides that quality some other important things happened that weekend:

  • The infant workshop had the hubris to tackle issues affecting newspaper journalism that not been faced creatively even by the vaunted publishers’ and editors’ associations.
  • It explored what were then radical new ideas — many of which we now see at work every day — for an industry whose products were chaotic, stultifying, and stuck at the turn of the century — the previous turn of the century.
  • And it was probably the first audible rumble in a revolution, with SND out front on the barricades, that actually redefined the newspaper.

Most of you missed that workshop. The next day after all was a school day. But it was pretty good for a start-up. Here’s the modest program:

  • Max McCrohon, editor of the Chicago Tribune, was one of the few visionaries among newspaper editor back then. Maybe because he was an Australian and not an American. Anyway, he lent credibility to a small group of newspaper guerrilla warriors.
  • Ed Miller, then publisher of the Allentown Call, was a kind of father to SND. He spoke on the ground-breaking work being done in Allentown.
  • Howard Finberg, then Tribune graphics editor, now a distinguished member of the Poynter Institute faculty.
  • The late Paul Back of Long Island’s Newsday on “Newspaper redesign: Who needs it, how to approach it.” His paper may been the first in America that banished those ugly pyramids and squared off its ads.
  • The late Lou Silverstein of the New York York Times, who was to become a very dear friend, thoughtfully admonishing us that designers will have to learn about newspapers and newspapers need to learn about designers.
  • Myself, then at the New York Daily News, with a presentation that may sound like a museum piece today , but 35 years go it was cutting edge: “New technology: The impact on the graphic journalist.”

There were others: the late legendary Ed Arnold, prolific author and teacher of newspaper design; Robert Lockwood, another friend of many years, who was chairman of our little collegial group before we went on to get legal with a president and other officers; Ed Breen; Gus Hartoonian. I hope I haven’t forgotten somebody.

Then with a stroke of confidence — maybe cockiness — it was announced that the 1980 workshop would be held in Washington and the year after that in New York. And we had yet to score a bank account. Rituals like these mean something only if the institution means something. And what makes me glad to be here is, not only that SND throws a nice party, but that SND matters. And it matters in several powerful ways.

  • SND is without question the most interdisciplinary group in all of journalism and communications, or for that matter, most professions or industries. There is little danger of a one-track organizational mind with a membership of designers, managing editors, news, copy, sports editors, art directors, photojournalists, graphic artists, publishers, typographers, illustrators, reporters, web masters, professors, teachers, and, yes, even students.
  • SND is the most youthful in age and, I’m sure you’ll agree, ,based on tonight’s lively party in spirit as well.
  • SND also works hard at being international and racially diverse.
  • It’s the most female industry group, which is why, I believe, it’s also the smartest. Thirteen women have served as president, and two of our long-ago presidents — Maggie Balough in Austin and Marty Petty in Providence were the first women to become editors of major American dailies.
  • SND was a leader in convergence before anybody used that word — the convergence of technology and design, and its members, not production departments nor IT people, were among the earliest adopters and leaders of the digital news workplace.
  • SND never forgot, especially in those early years, that while many sophisticated editors and publishers still didn’t get it, and thought that design was about prettification, we knew that the secret word was journalism and that it was all about design to enhance words and communicate information.
  • And finally, SND was one of the major contributors to the revival — some would say the savior — of print journalism 35 years ago.

But after looking back, we need to look ahead for the young people here , and we’re able to see some promising prospects unfolding .

David Carr is the smart and prescient media columnist of the New York Times. You should never miss him on Monday’s business front. He has written that the web was gradually discovering that, besides pornography, news was the new killer app. So what’s ahead? There was a cracker-barrel philosopher and humorist called Josh Billings, the pen name of Henry Wheeler Shaw, who wrote after the Civil War for the New York Weekly. In his day he was as well known as Mark Twain. In one of his great epigrams he said: “Don’t never prophesy, for if you prophesy wrong, nobody will forget it, and if you prophesy right, nobody will remember it.”

But in spite of that warning, and contrary to the bad news bears of publishing, Carr wrote just last month that (quote)“A profound reset is under way. In more than a decade of covering the news end of the media business, I cannot think of a time of greater optimism or potential.”

What he was talking about was that after years of fumbling leadership trying to work with old rules in a new environment and uninspired new owners dangerously playing at being media barons, Silicon Valley and its various power brokers are suddenly investing major amounts of money in quality news operations.

Peter Omidyar, the founder of eBay, has just put $250 million into a new news site. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, is, for another $250 million, the new owner of The Washington Post. Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Steve Jobs, has joined investors in a big news start-up. And there are others, too many to mention from here.

So technology and journalism, which Carr calls former antagonists, are about to give bromance a try, with geniuses like Bezos and Omidyar leading the way. David Wright alluded to this in his outstanding presentation this morning. These guys, as Carr says, “have upended and reinvented entire legacy categories,” and just might be able to “reverse-engineer their skills into the production of news.”

Maybe even, emulating Amazon, they can better plop a newspaper onto your doorstep. So the exciting thing for me — and I hope for you — is that many people in this room are going to be called on to do something even bolder than what was happening 35 years ago — and that is to radically re-invent the news media, especially the newspaper.

Carr wrote: “This unfolding partnership will be fun to behold. For all their differences, the news and technology businesses share a kind of utopianism, an idealistic belief that the work of human hands can make life better for other humans.”

—————————

Phillip Ritzenberg is a designer, editor, and publisher who has worked in newspapers for almost six decades.