Friday, November 23, 2007

Business Week Redesign: Total Rant

1. In the old trade press days, we used to do surveys of readers, and we'd be quite surprised when some publication beat us in the ‘news’ category. Oh sure, we expected to lose out to some publications, which were in fact better. But some of the publications that beat us out merely ‘reran press releases’ – that was the phrase we used. Sometimes the term ‘news’ was part of their title banner. But the usual thread was: They looked like a mess. Poorly laid out. Not like a magazine. I recall one wag once opined: “The worse it looks, the more people think it is news.” The uglier, the newsier. That has stuck with me as an odd truism. And as publications react to the onslaught of the Internet, their tendency to prettify what they do, though sensible on one level, seems to me to work against their most sensible goals.

2. There always was a traceable trajectory with publications on the decline. The publication was once strong, but now the market and competitors conspire against it. Maybe the staff and management seem to be coasting. They do what they’ve done because it worked (never mind that it may have merely worked slightly better than some misfiring competitor). So what happens? An executive editor is brought in, so the editor can have more time to think. The executive editor brings in his old pals, does a reader survey, wields a knife, the editor is out, the new editor goes to a lot of lunches with the publisher, etc. The important thing is that now someone decides it's time to do a redesign.

Do a redesign. Look better. This philosophy is being played out in spades now that the whole notion of print is going down the tubes. There's a precipitous decline in what we call magazines. They pretty up corpses for funerals, and as with funeral detail, you have to follow the steps, damn the meaning. The redesign is an end in itself. It usually runs contrary to the news gestalt that usually got the publication going, 'cause it's so darn pretty. In the age of the Internet, it is usually based on wise [but wrong] premises. Which brings me to today’s topic: BusinessWeek’s redesign.

3. McGraw-Hill in general and BusinessWeek in particular have long had a reputation as semi-scientific research-driven operations. Over the years this had led to an extraordinarily well-designed publication – if the definition and purpose of design is to communicate useful facts efficiently. You could read the table of contents and find upfront summaries of every article, and headlines that conveyed the pertinent drama or message. If you only had time to read the ToC, you were smarter for the experience. If you had time to thumb through the publication, the decks, subheads, info graphics , pictures and captions would tell you that story in just a bit more detail. Even if you only read the two or three stories pertinent to your business, you had managed to learn something larger about the machine of the economy. The Wall Street Journal is the only pub I’d put on par with Business Week in terms of providing [close to] totally efficient information communication.

“People are too busy too read” was what McGraw-Hill heard in the old days – just as it’s heard now. Their moves were planned, and not based on the publisher’s luncheon with his brother-in-law in Buffalo. The problem was that people were busy, but the solution back then was to carefully build a communicating juggernaut. Nowadays it's to place "white space” as the ultimate good, feature art that acts like an ink blot test – as if the business people would bother with abstract bemusement and pointless nuance on their way to figuring out what is going on – and slash the character count on headlines until they're guaranteed to remove information, but, by the way, gain an art award.

The new Business Week is visually engaging in a soft pleasant way. It doesn’t do the things a pub should do for the reader in conveying news. Of course, just like your typical fey new ager, it wonders what news really is. Such decadence is not a response to the Internet, it is a disease of civilization. 'Twould be better to look uglier and assault the visual psyche than go softly into the good night.

4. Where do the art directors’ diddling leave off and the editors’ middling begin? Business Week was one of the first pubs ever to go to a two-page table of contents. Now it’s back to one, but half of that goes to an art element. The new half-page TOC is indecipherable. The old provided full heads and excellent decks that told you what the stories were about. In terms of info transfer, there is no contest. The old example:

Baffling Google – Why the tech titans has so much trouble making its innovative products stick
Versus
A delicate moment for Hong Kong’s financial markets

One tells me what is going one, using more type characters.
The other tells me something is going on, using less type characters.

Time will tell how well the three-digit designators for pages [eg., 078] works If the folio regularly misses the 100+ mark, it will look vividly like what it is: an art director’s conceit. There is a new section called “BTW.” Which has the benefit of using the modern argot of the e-mail savvy, but which roils the waters: News is not ‘by the way’ [read: you can ignore if you want] stuff.

The new Business Week did not coil into this scared fetal position suddenly. Great gobs of the publication have been overtaken by Life style stuff aimed at gratuitously garnering ads from resort operators, car makers, and golf club manufacturers. It is a general decline.

BTW: When will this mail-bag column with Jack and Suzy Welch end? Have they ever had an idea, or a portion of an insight? Is it actually possible that Christopher Finlay, Chicago, sent in the question: “What are they keys to insuring a strong start in a leadership position?” or that Anonymous, Hartford, wrote: “I’m a large-account sales guy who loves his job and want to keep doing it. But how can I say excited and current so I don’t become “the old guy”??

5. So what do I like? Godawful ink! The Nation, The New Republic, The American Spectator. The New Yorker, The New York Times! Yes they are all feverishly redesigning too. What says ideas? What says news? Words on paper – lots of them. It’s hard to read words on the web. It’s a good place for impressions. Bloody ink in mass quantities is what this era calls for. I may be swimming against the stream, but that is better than being swept over Niagra.

On another level what is going on is a removal of belief in advertising. If the print side ad revenues were going up, the world would look different to the Business Week Powers that Be. Advertising grew up in the era of Freud, now passed. Now, people think they are actually measuring something with the web that they think they cannot faithfully measure in print. The more that useless chatter fills the papers and mags, the more the forecast of pulp doom holds. And you can make it prettier looking too.

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