Schneider: A design that reduces a story to one fact puts incredible pressure on that fact

Editor’s Note: The New York Times’ SportsSaturday section, which featured a list of NBA transactions, intending to highlight LeBron James’ return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, was met with a fury of debate across social media platforms (The Times’ public editor weighed in Monday). In this two-post series, Paul Wallen (Senior designer, ESPN the magazine) and Rob Schneider (Immediate past president, Society for News Design) debate the cover.

“CLEVELAND CAVALIERS: Signed F LeBron James.”

With white space, color, and a page almost devoid of any other information, this is the sentence The New York Times went to extraordinary measures to make sure no one could miss.

NYT-SportsFrontA design that reduces a story to one fact puts incredible pressure on that fact. Then getting that fact wrong, whatever the reason — syntax, Associated Press agate, whatever — makes the entire thing indefensible from a journalistic standpoint.

LeBron James did not sign with the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday. The New York Times story told me that. It said  “he is likely to be paid $88 million in a maximum four-year deal.” James signed a two-year contract on Saturday.

A design that emphasizes a factual error fails the journalistic threshold for accuracy, and there is really no room for debate on that point.

I’m not talking about whether I like the page or not or the quality of the execution. Honestly, it is bold and risk taking in a way that, of course, many in the design community love it.

It is also poorly timed and misguided. It feels like a print page designed for Twitter and SportsCenter and less so for the readers of the print edition of The New York Times. It is telling that the debate about this page began before it actually arrived on the doorstep.

The NYT is one of the best at telling readers what happened in the news but also what it all means. It adds context, and that is one of the things that makes it the greatest newspaper in America, and a must-read on most days.

Come Saturday morning this page boldly heralded a story well known in an overly clever way. I imagine to many readers that was a disappointment. It said, “Look at me! Look at me!” when the NYT never has to. It already has our full attention. This felt needy on a story with centers of gravity in Cleveland and Miami.

It also left me unsure of what it all meant. Is New York so big, LeBron going back to Cleveland is little more than a transaction? Or is it so amazing the NYT was at a loss for words so the simplicity of the design was meant to say something amazing I might have missed? There is a beauty to simplicity but things can be so simple the message is confused and we start to assign our own, unintended meaning.

And it should be noted that the most consequential free agent move that was waiting on this was that of Carmelo Anthony and whether he would remain with the Knicks. The New York Knicks. Wonder what the local papers had to say about that on their front page on Saturday?

Am I being harsh? Absolutely. The New York Times can and should handle scrutiny of that nature and gets it every day.

I’m being harsh because designers have failed newsrooms when we do print or digital design based on what we can do to the content. Or how we can do something so clever, there is no new content at all – just a slick package that boldly says we have nothing to add. We are somehow trying to inject ourselves or our organizations into the story when what readers want from us is clarity, accuracy, and of course all the news that is fit to print.

We absolutely should continue to take risks and be bold in the moment when the opportunity is there and the idea right. But we also must not make the mistake of defending or even heaping praise on pages just for the risk-taking alone. It exposes designers as more concerned with the design than the effectiveness or accuracy of the storytelling. In the bright light of day we must be brave enough to say sometimes pages don’t work or come up short. And that is ok. That kind of honesty keeps us relevant. Many things  we label “great” are good, at best, and that is not a bad thing.

A designer is the last stop between the newsroom and readers, and you have a lot of jobs. The most important one is for you get it right, whether that be in the content (visual or otherwise) on your page or in the basic facts reflected in that content. Let’s say the idea isn’t yours but you are forced to execute it anyway. Maybe an editor has been “helpful” and sketched it out for you on a budget, bar napkin, etc. It’s your job to make sure that the idea evolves to a place that reflects the content and at the very least the basic facts are accurate. There is often a line between what would be fun to do and what we should do.

Ask yourself this: “Would the editor be comfortable if this ran in a story?” Because, amazingly, the answer is often a “no.”

If this ran in a story about James, the NYT would be running a correction. It’s my hope the paper does just that.