Monday, September 18

Bring back those bastard columns!

The news that EJ Mitchell is leaving The Tennessean is not all that surprising, really. From what I can tell having talked to many of the managers and several of the designers there in recent months, I got the sense that the Kool-Aid had been ingested but everyone was politely and diligently feigning acquiescence to its effects because, well, a job's a job and not everyone can afford to jump ship and move elsewhere.

A micromanager (who could be euphamistically described as "hands-on"), EJ, when I met him and talked with him for a while, struck me as the type to look at his defecting staff and shrug, thinking good riddance while neglecting to perform the necessary and appropriate introspective evaluation to make sure he wasn't exacerbating the creeping badness in the newsroom that would cause literally half of the design staff and many others to flee. He apparently imposed arbitrary design rules on the staff, including hefty story counts for section fronts and a strict no-bastard-column rule, which ultimately resulted in heinously static, crowded pages with tiny photos. He also put a moratorium on illustrations in the paper, calling them "unsophisticated."

My time spent talking to EJ himself was fairly unremarkable. He was cordial and younger-looking than I had imagined he'd be. But he had some peculiar and concrete ideas about what readers want (including the contention that readers hate bastard columns because they can't read them; WTF?). (Any time a newsperson talks without reservation about what readers want, I get antsy, because obviously none of us knows for sure.) To EJ, readers want lots of crap on the front page, lots and lots of stories and graphics and photos — more than there was reasonably room for. He also has a penchant, as has been noted by many, for big fat Pearl Harbor headlines.

I don't think EJ was all bad, however. I appreciate his attempts to steer the paper in a more serious, hard news-centric direction. I think the paper's newfound emphasis on enterprise reporting is admirable in an age where super-short stories rule (ironically, Gannett can be at least partially blamed for this thanks to the USA Today rule). But as soon as I'd heard that the paper had completely shelved the much-anticipated redesign so they could work on "content issues," I wondered how long the current setup would last.

I think it's entirely possible to simultaneously redesign a paper's content and its look. In fact, it might be helpful to think about both aspects at the same time. It seems like infusing fresh ideas into any facet of the paper would prove inspirational for other facets. The print people could feed off the visual people's ideas and vice versa. There's no reason to section one off and then approach the other. All ideas should work together and propel each other forward. I was told that fixing the design is like putting a band-aid on the content problems. True, perhaps, but it doesn't have to be that way. Thinking of new ways to present the information visually can help shape the content's presentation and take it to a more modern, reader-friendly place.

I'm not sure whose mandate was keeping the redesign off the table for the time being. If it was EJ's, hopefully his departure will embolden the staff to press ahead and bring The Tennessean forward, for the sake of their readers and their staff.

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