Wallen: All-or-nothing attacks discourage intelligent risk-taking

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.

You probably  have an opinion about Saturday’s New York Times’ sports front, which replaced the usual headlines, photos and story text with a simple list of transactions that normally runs deep inside the section and a whole lot of white space. Highlighted in yellow was the one transaction that had everyone talking on a slow news day in July: “Cleveland Cavaliers – Signed F Lebron James.”

NYT-SportsFrontYou may think the page is clever and visually striking. You may think the page is poorly designed. You may not like the wording because Lebron James has not actually signed a contract yet. You may think the New York Times wasted a whole lot of space that could have been used for stories and photos. You may think this was a gimmick to get people’s attention. I saw all these opinions, and others, expressed yesterday on social media and various blogs.

And you know what? That’s OK.

I’m not here to argue with your individual opinion; I simply want to say there is room for all of our opinions. I offered to write this commentary because I was disturbed by the harsh criticisms made by a handful of SND colleagues and leaders, all of whom I have great respect for, suggesting that this page had no value, that it was indefensible, that it was bad design and bad journalism.

Let’s take a moment to consider how few absolutes there really are, even in an age when opinions are screamed from all sides as if they are fact. As writers, editors, designers, photographers, graphic artists and illustrators, we tend to be very passionate about our work. This is a call for us to remember that our work is also incredibly subjective. Isn’t it best when we express our disagreements without telling people they are wrong or that their work is worthless?

Yesterday I was asked how I thought there could possibly be any debate about this page, so I will share a few of my opinions below. I hope you will agree. Or disagree. Either way, please join the discussion and comment.

Inaccurate? The harshest criticism of this page focused on the word “signed.” James announced he is returning to Cleveland, but there are no reports that he has actually put signature to contract. Benjamin Hoffman at the Times, who designed this page, told me that “signed” was the wording used in the original Associated Press transactions transmission. AP later updated it to “agreed to terms.” An argument that the AP update should have been applied transactions listed on the Times page as well seems reasonable. Still, in my opinion, the difference is negligible: We don’t know that all specific terms have been worked out any more than we know if LeBron actually signed a contract. The most accurate wording might have been something like “LeBron announces return to Cleveland,” which then becomes a headline instead of the actual transactions listing. “Signed” does not bother me in this scenario, the meaning is clear and it’s a replication of the transactions wire — more illustration than story. Disagree or dislike the concept altogether, but calling it inaccurate is a stretch. Using it as a reason to completely dismiss a page that received a great deal of positive reaction seems a little bit like dropping a nuclear bomb on someone’s house because they jaywalked.

Designed for designers? That’s a hard case to make since most of the negative comments came from other designers and the outside reaction seemed overwhelmingly positive. Is this exactly what I would have done? Probably not. Doesn’t matter. The page makes a bold statement, has a clear concept and is in keeping with the voice and style of the Times. Each reader can decide for themselves whether the risk paid off or not, but I’d rather see a thoughtful surprise like this than a presentation that looks just like the day before.

Gimicky? Maybe this page was a blatant attempt to get people to pay attention to theTimes print product. … And your problem is?

Waste of space? I’m willing to give the Times sports staff the benefit of the doubt that on an otherwise slow Saturday, they were able to include the same amount of content. So the real difference is placing the transactions column on the section front and a few stories inside. In making that trade off, they gave readers something unexpected and gained a whole lot of attention they would have otherwise missed out on. Seems like a good trade to me.

The problem with harsh all-or-nothing attacks is that they discourage the risk-taking we actually want to encourage. The first rule of intelligent risk-taking is you have to be willing to accept that not everything is going to succeed. A measured critique of what worked and what didn’t is valuable. Harsh dismissals are not productive.

About Paul Wallen

is senior designer at ESPN the magazine.

11 comments

Paul, lots of good points. I thought the design worked. I disagree with you that the wording is not inaccurate. It is inaccurate. You say it is ”more illustration than story.” The standards of accuracy can’t be weakened because it makes for a better design.

Paul, this is well done. (As is Rob’s entry.)

I agree with the folks that call this page inaccurate. I think that’s a major problem.

But I admire the risk taking.

I also don’t agree with the accusations of poor “reader value.” I think that’s a weak criticism. And here’s why.

1. Among US newspapers, the NYT is perhaps one of the few that still has abundant news hole. I think it’s careless to suggest they reduced their overall report to do this cover without first checking with them. Exactly what stories did they spike to do this design? Did anyone ask them before all the Tweets? I don’t see either question or answer in my feeds and in neither of the two posts on SND.org. If we’re going to call out the Times for being factual, let’s get our facts together too. (I actually can’t verify this since I live in China. Anecdotally, I saw three separate reports on LeBron in the app when the story was breaking.)

2. “Insight” and “analysis” has been bandied about as missing from this page, but that doesn’t hold up for me. Beyond the fact of LeBron agreeing to terms, the other reports — which I love to read, don’t get me wrong — would have been conjecture (What it means for the Cavs; what it means for the Heat; etc.) or tied up in recounting the prolonged ballyhoo while he made his pick. Yet putting an unrelated story onto this cover would have underplayed a huge story. Also, the Times needed to navigate a trickier road than Cleveland and Florida. It could localize the story by analyzing what it means for the Knicks’ chances at re-signing Carmelo Anthony, but that package would have shrunk a story bigger than the nitty gritty of sports coverage.

3. Capturing the zeitgeist has “reader value” and “insight.” LeBron has been sucking up all the oxygen in news coverage. This page makes me think of a New Yorker cover — a national brand using irony to tell us a broader story beyond the confines of its local readership. It’s a powerful choice cognizant of the NYT’s unique place in the national discourse and likely exclusive to them.

Is it a great page? I don’t know. It’s got problems, but it’s got a lot going for it too. I’m OK with that gray area.

Regardless, there was a lot of interesting and good news design that came out of the LeBron epic.

Ron and Alex, thanks for the comments!
Ron: Of course accuracy can’t be weakened for design, I didn’t write that and certainly didn’t intend to imply it. I happen to think there is room to disagree on the “inaccurate” label, as we do. Perhaps the illustration analogy was a poor one. They simply reversed the norm by putting the agate listing on the cover and the stories inside. Were all the papers that published the transactions listing on an inside page “inaccurate?” Is the updated “agreed to terms” any more accurate? (No terms were announced.) Should the wording have been changed to something more precise like “LeBron announces he is going to Cleveland,” which then becomes something different than the transactions listing? How exactly did this mislead readers? To me it’s a disagreement about the wording. The various opinions are valid, but they are still opinions and I’m just saying there is enough room to disagree here without being one being “wrong” and the other “right.” I think this is demonstrated by the large number of both positive and negative reactions.
I think Alex’s last comment, about it having problems and having some things going for it, is pretty fair. Whether we think the page succeeded, failed or fell somewhere in between, I believe there is value in making the effort to think different and be different.

Just spitballing here …

How is there “room to disagree” on the inaccurate label?

It’s a black/white kind of thing. Either it is accurate or it isn’t and, in this case, it clearly wasn’t.

If you’re saying that it should have been worded differently, then, yup, it’s inaccurate.

All of this undercuts the basic premise here, that these are all-or-nothing attacks on design. They’re not. The power of that page hangs on a single fact, which was wrong. Once you undercut that, the rest is pretty irrelevant.

If you want to blame someone for making this all-or-nothing, blame the sports editor at the NYT, who took that risk by hanging it all on one piece of AP agate, but pointing that out doesn’t discourage risk-taking. Emphasizing accuracy never does.

The design implicitly conveys an opinion: this one tidbit is so newsworthy, no other item is important enough to share all the extra space. Whether the NYT should devote essentially its entire sports front page to an opinion piece is another matter entirely; as an opinion piece, however, it necessarily deserves more latitude than a straight news story. It’s an editorial opinion, by design.

Not unless I’m paid to. My blog posts auto tweet, so the title is tweeted then the link comes after it. My discosure of how I worked with the brand is within the post. If a tweet was paid for then I’ll add the #ad, but not just for mentioning a brand within a tweet

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