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Packaging vs. content

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Versatile, Feb 18, 2011.

  1. Versatile

    Versatile Active Member

    Allow me to start this conversation by linking to the story that made me consider posting this in the first place: http://sports.espn.go.com/los-angeles/nba/news/story?id=6126474

    Ramona Shelburne is a talented writer, and her story on Blake Griffin is fine. It's well written. It's a good primer for those who are really just now catching onto the fact that he's the hottest thing in the NBA these days.

    What it isn't is insightful, in-depth or groundbreaking. Which is fine: Not every story can be. Except that ESPN packaged it as if it were written after a Shelburne spent serious time getting to know Griffin. She didn't. She put together a nice piece on what makes Blake Griffin a great basketball player and how he makes his teammates better.

    ESPN packaged it with a really nice illustration, the headline "Poster Boy" and the words "His dunks are a 'SportsCenter' staple. His game has made him an All-Star. But who is Blake Griffin and where did he come from?"

    The story simply doesn't answer that. It also doesn't particularly warrant the treatment given with drop caps on every section. There are more in-depth pieces on ESPN regularly that receive less fancified treatment.

    Regardless, I'm not making this about ESPN. Newspapers do this as often, if not more often, than websites, even the World Wide Leader.

    The other day, I was designing a page and the centerpiece was a good-but-nothing-special 19-inch feature on an area college basketball player. My front page package drew praise from my bosses, but in retrospect, I couldn't help but feel that, as a reader, I would have been very disappointed to flip inside and realize that what I thought was an expansive feature was really just an everyday-type story.

    My point: It's easy for good designers and illustrators to fancify layouts and blow up a story to make it feel special. But what if it's not special? Should we as designers intentionally restrain ourselves aesthetically for stories that don't really deserve that sort of treatment.

    I'm not talking about play on the page or size of the centerpiece, either. I'm talking about design touches. Maybe a headline treatment, or a visual breakout that's more than just a chart.

    What do you think? Is it the designer's job to make the best with what he's got to work with, or should we hold back on the everyday stories to make "special" stories really feel "special"?

    Note: I am not referring to "over-designed" layouts. Those aren't good in any scenario. I'm talking about basically using what would be a great layout for a 40-inch, really strong feature story with a ton of human interest, on a 20-inch featurette that really sticks more to "Player X is really improved this year" or "Player Y came back from a tough injury quicker than expected."
  2. BrianGriffin

    BrianGriffin Active Member

    My question was, did the writer deliver the goods that were promised? This is a take-out length piece. Was the plan to do exactly what the headline says the story was going to do and then the writer delivered something short of that?

    Not to throw it on her, because like you said, it's not a bad read. But in my experience, this kind of thing happens. If in some planning meeting, something says "Ramona is going to have X" then she writes Y, which is very close to X, but not the same, some desker at the meeting is still going to be thinking about that "X" he heard about in the meeting.

    Make sense?

    So there are three likely problems if that's the case.
    1. The writer did not follow the plan or
    2. The flow of the story changed because of things that happen doing the legwork (an interesting angle that develops that wasn't part of the original plan, for example) and there was a breakdown in communication over the change and how that might alter the packaging or
    3. These sort of organic changes happened and were communicated, but the desk either was too lazy to alter the packaging or were overwhelmed by other work, so they just kept it as is.

    I've experienced all three and have been guilty of the first two as a writer (but you learn).

    And I'll edit to add that the only real problem I have with the packaging is the sentence: "Who his Blake Griffin and where did he come from?" It's more about where he's going and what contemporaries (players, coaches) think of him NOW and his potential to be a sustained star in the future.
  3. Versatile

    Versatile Active Member

    Like I said, Ramona's piece really just got me thinking about the bigger problem, Brian.

    Mr. Creosote, you bring up a point that I, as a desker, hadn't considered really. A writer might not WANT to draw special treatment on a story they didn't give special effort toward.
  4. fishwrapper

    fishwrapper Active Member

    This piece may be a bad example.
    Ramona's piece isn't a "19-inch feature on an area college basketball player."
    It's somewhere in the 2,700-word range and is part of a multimedia package that included a youtube exchange with viewers. The lede-in text is to grab your attention. That's an editor trying to get you to click through. In addition, that editor needs to be cognizant of the other elements in the package.
    I just read the entire piece. I enjoyed it.
  5. Versatile

    Versatile Active Member

    I liked the piece. I read the whole thing, and enjoyed it. I just thought the packaging was misleading. I was led to expect something completely unlike what I received upon the click through. The use of drop caps on every section and a fancy illustration on the mainpage only continued that misleading packaging.

    That was my point.
  6. Mark2010

    Mark2010 Active Member

    In a perfect world, every story would be a Pulitzer. We all know that's not the case. Sometimes today's story is going to be routine.

    As someone who both writes and designs, I try to keep my best layout ideas for stories that I think are the best or have the biggest stages (Super Bowl, state tournament, etc.). Nothing wrong with fancy layouts, but they are like the drop shot in tennis ... when used sparingly they are more effective.
  7. BrianGriffin

    BrianGriffin Active Member

    My criticism is more on how the art portrays the content of the story more than the importance of the package itself. I think this is a nice, take-out piece you can feature. But it advertises it being something it's really not.
  8. Frank_Ridgeway

    Frank_Ridgeway Well-Known Member

    Sometimes newspaper designers get carried away. Other times, the writer or the assigning editor oversells the story and the overblown design is too far along by the time more sensible minds actually read the story. Still other times, intelligent people can disagree about a story's value in relation to the play it's given.

    If I am a subscriber and the newspaper or magazine oversells something or if I am reading free online, I am still a bit pissed if someone has convinced me to waste my time on something that delivers less than the implied promise of the display. If I am not a subscriber and I buy a publication based on what the display promises, then I am a lot pissed at the editors and quite annoyed at myself for buying without first thumbing through it. You can be sure I won't make the same mistake with your specific publication again. If I am in B&N looking at mag covers, I seldom buy anymore without taking a test drive.

    Couple days ago, Romenesko linked to this story in which Wired magazine's editor admits, "“We put things on the covers that sell, and sometimes its relationship to the interior is not 100 percent.”

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