Design tips

60 inches? No visual? Unacceptable

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Poll after study after survey tells us readers will not read a story that's more than 15-20 inches long. They just won't.

So, what do you think they'll do with a story that's 60 inches long? With no visual. 

That's right ... no visual. No photo. No chart. No map. No pullout. Nothing to draw attention to the story or to break up that 60 inches. Just a dull, gray sea of type.

There was no need to rush the story into print. It's just a backgrounder on the city's plans to build a new office complex.

So, if this happened at a small daily where I was, say, the owner and editor, what would I do about it? 

Let's say I've been out of town at a press association convention for the past three or four days. And when I stop by the office on my way home, I go through the latest issue of my paper and I see that 60-inch story ... with no visual.

It would be a major understatement to say I would be unhappy. I'd be furious! 

During the past few years, I've trained my staff that visuals are critical to good reporting. I have a managing editor, a news editor/designer, a sports editor and his assistant, two features writers and two reporters. And all eight of them have been taught the value of good visual elements.

I've even made sure the importance of visuals is a key part of our design style guide. There are six pages in that 30-page style guide that talk about the value of visuals and how to use them!

But there I am. In my office. Fuming.

And now, I have to consider what I'm going to say to the staffers involved in letting that 60-inch story get into my newspaper with no visual.

When it comes to moments like this, I try to get through the burn and then find a way to solve the problem. But I do want my staff to know that this is inexcusable.

Here's what I'd do:

I would say not-very-nice things (and maybe throw out a planned epithet or two) to the writers and editors who let this happen. I would say those things loudly and forcefully, in the newsroom so everyone else can hear me. I would do this with a purpose and I would probably rehearse what I'm going to say before assembling my staff. 

I would make it clear that this is NOT the way we are EVER to do things.

And then I would have them write a very strongly worded memo setting up steps to guarantee that this never happens again. I would edit that memo as needed and have them rewrite it and then make sure it goes on the bulletin board and in emails or system memos to everyone in the newsroom. 

I would have everyone on my staff initial a printed copy of the memo as proof that they have read it. And I would keep that initialed copy in my files.

I would also make sure that a copy of that memo goes into the personnel file of every editor and reporter involved.

This is one of those pivotal, important moments in the history of how we do things in a newsroom.

A 60-inch story with no art is unacceptable, and the fact that some in the newsroom let it happen is inexcusable.

Is this just too much? Am I indulging in overkill? Perhaps.

But I'll bet it will be a long, long time before I see a story that long without a visual again.

WANT A FREE evaluation of your newspaper's design? Just contact Ed Henninger: edh@henningerconsulting.com | (803) 327-3322

IF THIS COLUMN has been helpful, you may be interested in his books: "Henninger on Design" and "101 Henninger Helpful Hints." With the help of his books, you'll immediately have a better idea how to design for your readers. Find out more about "Henninger on Design" and "101 Henninger Helpful Hints" by visiting his website: www.henningerconsulting.com

ED HENNINGER is an independent newspaper consultant and the director of Henninger Consulting. He offers comprehensive newspaper design services including redesigns, workshops, staff training and evaluations. E-mail: edh@henningerconsulting.com. On the web: henningerconsulting.com. Phone: (803) 327-3322.

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