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.