Design Comes to the Newsroom

The Minneapolis Tribune on March 17, 1971, about two weeks before the
redesign. Some of the innovations had already been adopted.

The Minneapolis Tribune on March 17, 1971, about two weeks before the redesign. Some of the innovations had already been adopted.

The completely redesigned front page of the Minneapolis Tribune, published
April 5, 1971.

The completely redesigned front page of the Minneapolis Tribune, published April 5, 1971.

The myths of newspaper makeup

Like most newspapers of the 1960s, the Minneapolis Tribune looked much as it had before World War II. A front page from 1940 and one from 1967 placed next to each other would both present the reader with an interlocking puzzle of stories, with few pictures. Both pages would have a mix of Roman and italic headlines written in title case, with every word capitalized except articles and some prepositions. Both would have a high story count, with five or six headlines above the fold. Both would use an inconsistent array of graphical devices to introduce columnists and other special features. Both would be gray and uninviting.

The people who made up the pages in 1960 were former reporters, men for the most part, who saw their task as getting as many stories as possible into a limited space. They decided where to place stories in the paper based on a set of rules that had been handed down from editor to editor over the decades: The lead story must go on the right. Headlines must never be placed next to each other. Stories had to be set in serif type because it was easier to read than sans serif type. The type had to be justified, lined up straight on both sides of the column, because they knew that’s how readers wanted it.

Newspaper editors were glacially slow to change how they did things, largely because for 50 years their newspapers had faced little competition in reporting day-to-day events — and had enjoyed healthy profits. News people came to see the way they did things as the right way, as good journalism. They came to believe that the news process, an irrational one in many ways, was the reason for their success.

Management researcher Maurizio Zollo writes that this “superstitious learning” happens “when individuals develop unfounded, or ‘superstitious’ beliefs about their competencies, which can result from failing to understand correctly the reasons for past successes.” This type of learning, Zollo writes, is particularly dangerous when people in an organization face a “rare and complex” task. They are overconfident in their abilities and assume that standard routines will work.

The myths of newspaper makeup were reinforced by the insular nature of the newsroom. Warren Breed, a reporter before the war, left the newspaper business to earn a doctorate in sociology at Columbia University. He returned to study the newsroom in the 1950s and found that publishers and editors used subtle punishments and rewards to enforce their methods, so much so that reporters and editors became focused on the process itself rather than on the end product — and anyway, reporters and editors had little knowledge about how their customers read the paper.

As with all superstitions, the myths of newspaper makeup have proved tough to overcome. In the 1990s, the newspaper designer Mario Garcia still was writing about these same design myths, nearly 30 years after Frank Ariss destroyed so many of them at the Minneapolis Tribune.

“Like the games children play, nobody knows where these myths start,” Garcia wrote on the Poynter Institute Web site. “Children teach each other games in the schoolyard. Professors pass on myths to their innocent charges in journalism school. Then those myths gain momentum when the rookie journalist hears the same myth glorified by his veteran editor.”

The Tribune leaders had to break out of this thinking if they were to forge ahead with a radical redesign of their product.

A formidable task

Given his naiveté about newspapers, Ariss faced a formidable task at the Minneapolis Tribune. A few other newspapers had radically redesigned their pages, but those had been papers that were failing financially and were willing to try anything to survive; in a sense, they had lost faith in the myths. The most notable redesign came about in 1963, when Peter Palazzo redesigned the Sunday sections of the dying New York Herald Tribune.

“With the grid system, he put everything on the grid so lines of type would line up and headlines would conform to a certain number of lines of type. You could lay a ruler all the way across the page, and everything would line up, with the no indenting and a line of space between paragraphs.”
Michael Carroll, a former student of Ariss’, who came on to help with the redesign and stayed for more than 40 years.

In his book The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald Tribune, Richard Kluger wrote, “Until then, most newspaper editors’ idea of page design began and ended with the question ‘Where shall we put the picture?’ The new Sunday Tribune was conceived as a graphic totality.” The Minneapolis Tribune, on the other hand, was a successful and profitable paper. Although the parent company, Cowles Communications, began losing money about the time Ariss came on board, John Cowles Jr. had money and was willing to spend it.

The Tribune redesign was possible because of a mix of elements that no newspapers had enjoyed before and few have known since: editors who were willing to question those long-held newsroom myths, a company willing to pay the price, and a designer who was as meticulous in his methods as he was radical in his approach.

“To do a good project, a good designer needs a good client, and a good client needs a good designer,” Ariss said. “It always has been and it always will.

“We were after the same thing, and the thing was, we never really spoke about designing. A newspaper isn’t design; it’s content, it’s editorial content, and I’ve always respected that. The best a designer can do is help that, the photographs, the headlines, the legibility of the type, to improve the quality of that. So in a sense my charge was to make the newspaper, the Tribune, to look as good as in fact it was.”

The Minneapolis Tribune of the 1960s was part of the Cowles family empire that comprised 29 trade journals and magazines, including Look and Family Circle, three newspapers, three radio stations and three television stations. The Tribune and its sister papers staffed bureaus in Washington and overseas. The Tribune was distributed across Minnesota using a business model that John Cowles Sr. had perfected at the Des Moines Register.

“It was a big newspaper in a small town,” Ariss says. “It wasn’t just AP wirestuff. It had people in London, you know, the European correspondent, Asian correspondent.

“The Tribune was very dull, but I admired it.”

When the Tribune’s leaders came to realize the scope of the redesign, they hired Michael Carroll, a former student of Ariss’ at the Minneapolis College of Art, to help out his mentor. Like Ariss, Carroll had never worked at a newspaper. He had wanted to make art prints, but after taking Ariss’ class during his junior year, Carroll decided graphic design was a surer way to support a new family, and he switched his major. Carroll was supposed to stay with the Tribune for a year.

“At the time I was married and needed the job, but it was a lot of fun,” Carroll says. “I learned more from the redesign process that first year than in four years of college.”

Carroll remembers some resistance to the redesign in the Tribune newsroom. “A lot of editors had never worked with design and thought it was a phase,” Carroll said, “and in some sense it was just a phase, given the ups and downs a newsroom goes through. There was some animosity.”

But Carroll also saw that everything was in place to make the project work, beginning with Wally Allen.

“I think he cared a lot about newspapers, and he was forward thinking,” Carroll said. “He read a lot, and he met with different groups and listened to them going on about their papers. When Frank came along, he seized the opportunity.”

Cowles Jr. and his wife, Sage, a dancer and choreographer, were involved in the arts community and were susceptible to Ariss’ charms.

“When Frank came in with his English accent, how could you go wrong?” Carroll said. “It was even that way in class at college, him coming in, this limey, and you could hardly understand him, but in two weeks you were at a pub having a beer with him.

“I’ve gotten to know Frank very well. He can be very persuasive, and he’s such a wonderful designer that nobody can really say no to him.”

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