A new era in news design

The roll-out last week of the new Wall Street Journal caps a historic year for the American press that began with the redesign of the Chicago Tribune, followed by the new Internet edition of The New York Times.

These changes appear incremental. But they mark the passing of the era of broadly shared experience in the United States.

The US press was once a public cornucopia hawked on street corners and read on kiosks in front of newspaper offices, an active element in an outdoor public life. Most of that life is gone. Over the 20th century, refrigerators moved the greengrocer into the kitchen, cars moved public transport into the family garage, and TV moved entertainment into the living room. Even shopping moved from public streets into private malls and the Internet.

Designers did something similar to the newspaper.

In the 19th century, newspapers were laid out in "industrial style" – jumbled and diverse. The columns crowded in like vendors' stalls in a market, with items clamoring for attention, but on a scale so small that headlines rarely ran more than a column wide. Readers had to bump into all sorts of news to get to what they wanted – just as you'd bump into neighbors when you took the bus.

After World War I, newspapers modernized. News was sorted into special-interest pages, and then into sections; by the mid-20th century, designers reformed newspapers so that readers could retrieve their own news with maximum efficiency. Journalists focused less on storytelling and more on getting the facts right and putting them into context.

If the industrial newspaper bombarded readers with stuff, the modern newspaper is supposed to draw a daily map of the social world. The new Wall Street Journal front page reflects what has already happened to the interior pages. The modern design guides the reader along, using indexes, white space and tint blocks, uniform typography, and orderly sectioning to divide up and clarify things. The move to two-column headlines on Page 1 allows the paper to prioritize events more.

All major US newspapers have now completed their transformation from public compendiums into personal appliances, a process that reached its height in the Chicago Tribune's redesign last spring.

A compendium is a resource that can be used to accomplish the ends of civil society. The busy front page of the traditional newspaper threw readers into the talk of the day, and let them – or made them – find their own way through it. In this form, news was something to work through as you reached your interests.

On the other hand, an appliance is a product designed to perform specific functions (chosen under corporate control) for consumers. This is what the new section, Personal Journal, will do inside The Wall Street Journal.

The Web is the ultimate appliance. Its interactivity allows readers to craft their own content. Online newspapers can profile each user and sell advertisers access to specific types of consumers with specific interests, background, and income. For readers, the search capabilities leave less chance for the surprises and public encounters that often occurred in print.

Today's personalized press is more accurate (and better looking) than it was a century ago, but it fails to do the most important thing newspapers used to do – empowering citizens by immersing them in a common news culture. In the industrial newspapers, readers made news their own, becoming better citizens and, in the bargain, more loyal customers – something the newspaper needs desperately today.

• Kevin G. Barnhurst is an associate professor of communication at the University of Illinois, Chicago. John Nerone is a professor at the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. They wrote 'The Form of News, A History' (Guilford, 2001).

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