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Chapter 8 (part 1)

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on May 26, 2006 at 6:21:31 pm
 

Comments and Discussion:

Lorenzo:

About "tabloids and conflict of traditional versus modern"

I understand the controversy between industrial production (repeatable processes) and marketing (creativity) but the parallel with modern tabloid style is not clear to me. It could be: Industrial Production=abstract rationality and Marketing=emotions. It seems that all these forces existed at the same time and were in conflict during tabloid evolution but tabloid, by definition, should be influenced by emotional and innovation and not traditions and rationality.


Kevin:

A very good comment about the complexity of the process. Tabloids were innovations when they emerged, but they very quickly adopted a predictable visual style (and related network of relations). That is to say, after the initial creative moment, tabloids became a tradition of their own making. The emotional is the greatest driver, but also traditions in the sense of conservative values (upon which the "shock" of tabloid sensationalism depends). So it is very complex and intertwined.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BEYOND MODERNISM

Americanization & Its Consequences, 1910-2000

 

At the height of modern newspaper design, the rules of form were widely understood and rigidly enforced in the United States. The debates of the period occurred over details only, not over fundamentals. Proto-Modern old-timers clung to Bodoni headlines despite withering attacks from the young High Modernist bucks who pushed for Helvetica. Everyone, however, was in broad agreement about making reading more efficient and attracting the eye - the basic modernist tenets. Another argument raged over whether the lead story belonged on the left or right side of the front page, but both sides assumed the same functionalist logic, that the form was a tool for professionals to guide readers through the day's events. Modernism permeated thinking about news, extending as far as civics teachers, who explained the rules for newspaper reading in their classes - the hierarchy of large-to-small headlines, top-to-bottom layout, and arrangement from stories leading on the front page or appearing on a section front to those buried inside. That's just the way things were done.

 

In the long history of journalistic form, the look of news always corresponded rather tightly to the reigning newspaper type at any given time. Despite some variations, the printer's newspaper had a look that we call the Federal style, and the editor's newspaper had a look we call the Partisan style. Victorian design came into existence with the industrial newspaper, and Modern style with the professional newspaper. The productive mode influenced style in many ways, some practical, such as the printers' limited design resources; some political, such as partisan appeals to citizen-voters through republican simplicity; some economic, such as industrial newspapers' increasing reliance on advertising revenue from mass retailers, especially department stores; and some cultural, such as the modern professionals' need to clarify their authority. In every case, the networks of relationships that constituted the newspaper connected clearly to the imagined network of relationships that the newspaper form represented.

 

At least in retrospect, the connections seem clear. In the case of Modern style, it is difficult to convey how rigid the rules were, especially looking back from the perspective of the twenty-first century. Today the type of newspaper production no longer marches in lockstep with a characteristic style. The corporate newspaper - our designation for the current type - breaks apart that connection and treats design history as a grab bag, employing elements from every other period and using them to signify wildly different things. The look of news has become relatively autonomous from its system of production. At the same time, the newspaper organization itself has become more complex, as the previously direct lines between the departments and the functions of the medium have blurred and as marketing has become (again) more urgent.

 

In other words, the modernist culture of newspapers has reached the brink of exhaustion. The sources of exhaustion lie deep in the internal structure of newspapers and in their external social, cultural, and political environment: fear of competition from other media, the rise of news design as a fully institutionalized profession, the widespread challenge to modernist apparatuses of objectivity and expertise, the growing awareness of cultural heterogeneity, and the predictions of newspapers' demise in the face of the unlimited possibilities new technologies seem to provide. These factors have a long history, co-extensive with the career of modernism and not appearing only at its end. Together they have destabilized modernism, bringing another formation to a close.

 

The history of U.S. news form therefore stands at a moment of epochal change - perhaps. In the last decades of the twentieth century, the modern impulse seems to have run its course not only in news form and practice but also in art, design, and culture generally. At the same time, national distinctions and boundaries have become less monolithic and more permeable. Two dynamic repertoires of design innovation flank the U.S. newspaper: first, the practices of the press elsewhere in the world and, second, the spread of news onto computer networks. American newspaper designers have moved swiftly into both those regions, spreading U.S. styles but not emerging untouched. In other countries and in the foreign territory of computer publishing, the modern rules of news form must bend or even break. The future of news design will spring from those conditions, as newspapers encounter both frontiers.

 

To understand U.S. news form and its authority on the new frontier, we explored international newspapers and electronic newspapers, first surveying broadly and then looking at a selected area in depth. In general we found intriguing sources of design innovation in places removed from mainstream Western news, but computer news sites, surprisingly, have largely abandoned the form of newspapers. The new media versions gobble up the contents of print versions and stand ready to dispense them in a different environment with different visions of the public and its uses for news.

 

International style

In our examination of the international setting, we studied several hundred newspapers from around the world (Barnhurst, 1995). We focused on authoritative forms by gathering elite and powerful publications from embassies and libraries in New York and Washington, which tend to subscribe only to newspapers considered serious (or at least those too widely circulated to ignore safely). Working inductively to group similar papers together, we found three clear dimensions in the form of news. Our history of U.S. news form has already presented the dimensions in some detail: first, the existence of vernacular forms indigenous among journalists before the arrival of modern style, second, the phases of modern design from the Proto-Modern to the Late Modern, and third, the vocabulary of visual expression ranging from the most reserved to the most emphatic.

 

Vernacular design, the first dimension, springs from journalistic processes before modern design intervenes. Vernacular form has always existed in the United States and is evident throughout the world. A broadsheet such as New Era of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (Figure 8.1), can serve to illustrate the crowded space, irregular layout, mixed typography, and inconsistent decoration characteristic of the vernacular today. Each trait expresses some aspect of the marriage between the reporting of public affairs and the business of making news profitable. Space, for example, is at a premium. After selling space to advertisers, newspapers never have enough left over to accommodate editorial contents, and that pressure gets expressed in visual form. What little space that remains must be rationed, leaving a minimum separation between lines of type, columns, and headlines. Layout is done on the fly. The speed of production leaves little time for rearranging items, and so the layouts tend to the haphazard, with one article wrapping cheek-by-jowl around another. Typography follows local traditions. The habits and preferences of editors, columnists, and others involved in daily production yield a mix of typefaces and type sizes. Other visual decoration serves the needs of the moment. The daily demands to emphasize or set apart certain items yield a miscellany of borders and ruled lines that decorate each page.

 

 

In vernacular design, publishers, editors, and production personnel since the nineteenth century have wielded control over news form, without much cognizance of or self-consciousness about trends and movements in visual design, and without the intervention of design professionals. Editorial and production personnel today continue to leave the traces of their work in the visual form of news without regard to the niceties of typography or the fashions of art. The resulting form does, however, share in the broad culture of its time and place. For that reason, we found vernacular designs among the most interesting. They tend to employ visual signs in ways that connote production processes and cultural values. At the same time, they always manage to look vestigial. Change has never come easily for newspapers, and publishers continue to resist abandoning traditions that seem to embody in visual form the authority of the journalistic craft.

 

In our international survey, vernacular newspapers existed at the margins of the international political and economic system. Some, such as the Manila Bulletin in the Philippines, looked like throwbacks to an earlier time, frozen in their visual form perhaps by work routines and equipment unchanged for many decades. Others had a thrown-together appearance, such as Ghanaian Times of Accra. Although they often held a place as leading newspapers, they also expressed the status of their countries' economies, as in the case of the Daily Ittefaq, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The largest cluster of vernacular broadsheet newspapers turned up in Africa. The Times of Zambia in Lusaka and Egyptian Gazette in Cairo are typical examples. Others published in isolated pockets within powerful economic blocs. In Europe, the Nationalist of Clonmel, Ireland, adopted vernacular design similar to that found in the United States among some small-town and weekly newspapers.

 

The second dimension we identified in our survey ranged across the phases of modernism. Once newspaper conductors begin to see vernacular designs as stodgy and conservative and then allow modern design ideas to enter the daily production of news, a process of stylistic change follows. Modern design brings with it the notion of design obsolescence, which aims to encourage consumer interest (and greater market penetration) by periodically giving the news a different look. Newspapers begin by making simple changes to unify their appearance, the first step toward Proto-Modern style, and that process seems to lead in many cases to increasing design control. The result is the clear organization of social mapping and typographic purity of modern style. A Classicist modern newspaper, such as the broadsheet Frankfurter Allgemeine of Frankfurt, Germany (Figure 8.2), can illustrate the outcome. In contrast to the vernacular example, the Frankfurt newspaper is fully modern. The space, although only slightly more generous, is consciously arranged. The layout relies on regular patterns, usually simple rectangles, which can be produced through the rationalization of design and production. The typography is extremely uniform and arrayed in a fixed set of sizes, with any contrasting type carefully matched to the main typeface. All of the decoration has a consistent weight and texture. In every trait, modern design stands in opposition to the vernacular form of news.

 

 

The varieties of modernism we found in newspapers worldwide do not obey the chronology of phases of modernism that marked developments in the United States. In line with Frederic Jameson's (1994) argument that what is called postmodernism is really incomplete modernization under conditions of global capitalism, various modern styles have moved from other countries and other industries to colonize the world's newspapers. As a result, what was sequential in the U.S. is synchronic in the world. All phases of modern design are happening simultaneously as stylistic influences invade newspapers from outside. Modernists themselves customarily invoke the invasion of market forces when arguing for greater design control: To attract readers, newspapers need to look up-to-date. To wield influence, they need to adopt the latest effects found in authoritative newspapers elsewhere. To attract advertisers, they need to conform to the standards of modern production used by leading advertising agencies. These arguments disguise their professionalizing and corporatizing motives. Shifting to modern design justifies large and regular investments of capital and labor - newer presses, computer front-end control systems, and highly skilled design professionals. It is evident that in some places the finances of newspapers constrain the advance of modernism. In our survey, many authoritative newspapers in national capitals continued to publish in the Proto-Modern form of broadsheets, like 1930s U.S. newspapers, with designs that minimized space as if to suggest economic limits and a closed public discourse.

 

Newspapers in our survey also seemed to follow national or regional schools of design. Many from the Indian subcontinent, for example, as well as from the Middle East, shared a preference for Proto-Modern design, down to the use of Bodoni-inspired headlines. Some German newspapers favored Classicist Modern design for authoritative broadsheets. High Modern designs clustered in England, Canada, and a few national capitals, and Late Modern in centers of design innovation, such as Japan, Italy, and Brazil, and in centers of economic development, such as the countries of northern Europe as well as Japan. By comparison, most broadsheets in the United States fit into the High Modern category, a tendency that accounts for the much maligned cookie-cutter uniformity of broadsheets in larger U.S. cities (see Chapter 6). The newspapers most admired for their visual appearance, such as the San Jose Mercury News in California, follow Late Modern design, a tendency that many other American newspapers verge on while still retaining mostly High Modern elements.

 

The third dimension in our survey was the range of visual expression from the most reserved to the most emphatic. The quiet constraint of the Classicist Modern phase in Frankfurter Allgemeine (see Figure 8.2) plots one end of the continuum. Dominant newspapers maintain the most reserved designs to encode their established authority, and competitors often move to the other end of the continuum, adopting a range of visual effects that provide emphasis. A Late Modern newspaper, such as the tabloid La Prensa of Buenos Aires, Argentina (Figure 8.3), illustrates the emphatic mode. Compared to the Classicist phase, Late Modern design is a study of contrasts. The typography includes the most exaggerated differences in typefaces, weights, and sizes. The layout contrasts extremely tall with extremely wide shapes. Decorative lines are also either heavy or light, and the use of color provides an additional tool for emphasis. The contrasts, however, all fit within modern constraints. The shapes are rectangular, not irregular, and the variation in type and decoration is not random or haphazard but follows a set pattern. Ruled lines, for instance, are limited to two or perhaps three specified weights.

 

 

The previous example also introduces a fourth dimension, format, which distinguishes tabloids such as La Prensa from broadsheets. The broadsheet format (roughly 13 by 23 inches) has a long history as an establishment symbol. Its authority derives in part from the nineteenth-century Imperial period of style (reflecting the huge investments required for large presses and mechanized papermaking) and in part from the older tradition dating to the large format of great folio books held at European universities. Broadsheets have flourished under modernism because their grand format accommodated the modern notion that news should appear in visual priority from large stories to small, from the top of the page to the bottom, and so forth.

 

However, the meanings of format appear to be in flux. In our survey we found a complex give and take between the reserved-to-emphatic dimension and the format of newspapers, which turned out to be the principal source of design innovation internationally. To simplify our presentation of that interplay, we will first describe the categories of tabloid newspapers and then return to the broadsheet, where we found the most intriguing examples of how news form is being reconceived.

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