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.

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