‘Journalist’ or ‘illustrator’? How self-identification affects designers’ job satisfaction

When veteran newspaper artist and designer Charles Apple worked at the (Raleigh) News & Observer in the 1990’s, he and his colleagues had an ongoing discussion about how they viewed their own jobs.

As they drew up the artwork, maps and infographics that adorned each day’s paper, they’d talk about whether their work constituted “journalism” and whether they thought of themselves as “journalists.”

For Apple, who never hesitated to grab a sketch pad and head out to a crime scene or natural disaster, the answer was obvious. He considered himself every bit a journalist — just as the paper’s reporters and photographers did. But some of his fellow designers saw themselves differently.

“Their point was that they’re not really journalists; they’re just illustrators,” Apple told me from southern California, where he’s now at the Orange County Register. “To them, it was just like working at an ad agency or anyplace else.”

That contrast among newspaper designers isn’t unusual, but a recent study suggests designers’ self-characterization of their jobs may be more than just fodder for newsroom debates. It also could play a role in their job satisfaction, especially as media companies move designers out of individual newsrooms and into consolidated hubs that serve several publications.

The small study by South Florida Sun Sentinel designer Rachel Schallom found that newspaper designers who consider themselves journalists are happier working in newsrooms, while those who think of themselves as artists or illustrators prefer working in the centralized design centers.

“People who identified as journalists got satisfaction from collaboration with editors and reporters,“ said Schallom, who conducted the study for her master’s thesis at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. “They liked content creation.”

On the other hand, those who don’t consider themselves journalists (three of the ten people Schallom interviewed) had different feelings about their work and the articles it accompanies.

“[They] said they don’t read the story and don’t care what it’s about,” Schallom said in a phone interview. “They just like the craft of graphic design.”

Are non-journalists a better fit?

It may be tempting for people with journalistic backgrounds to look down upon colleagues who admit to not reading the news. (Apple said he rarely hires people for design jobs unless they show interest in newspapers.) But Schallom’s findings suggest that those non-journalists may be a good fit for many of today’s design and layout jobs.

Companies such as Gannett, Tribune and McClatchy have centralized hundreds of those positions into hubs or design studios, where each employee typically works on several different newspapers. The centers vary in their responsibilities. Some employ designers who at least occasionally are called upon to construct complex graphics and major artwork for local newspapers. Others centers more closely resemble “assembly line” operations, where designers are limited to doing basic layout work.

In almost all of the consolidated centers, though, designers have less contact with reporters, and opportunities to actually visit breaking news scenes are virtually nonexistent.

“A lot of the people who were looking for more of a journalism role found they were very unsatisfied,” Schallom said.

Yet the designers who didn’t consider themselves journalists — people who typically attended art school or graphic design programs rather than journalism school — told Schallom they liked the hub work.

“They really didn’t want to work with the editors and the reporters,” Schallom said.

Schallom’s study, while small, might provide some guidance to managers tasked with staffing consolidated centers and addressing the high turnover rates that have plagued some of the operations.

It also spotlights the potential challenge faced by journalistically-trained designers, who may be dissatisfied working in centralized studios but are unable to land one of the increasingly rare design jobs in newsrooms.

Schallom’s newspaper — the South Florida Sun-Sentinel — still has a small local design desk, but much of each day’s paper consists of templated “mods” prepared at the central editing and design hub of its parent, Tribune Company. Dozens of other papers around the country now employ no designers or graphic artists at all. Apple’s former department at the News & Observer has been disbanded and the design and copy editing functions have been consolidated to a McClatchy Company center in Charlotte.

Unsurprisingly, many designers who self-identify as journalists have chosen to leave the profession, rather than pursue jobs at consolidated editing and design hubs.

“I don’t know if consolidated centers would be my kind of place,” said former designer and copy editor Abby Langston, who was laid off from the Winston-Salem Journal when Media General moved the design and copy desks to a center. “It’s kind of ‘plug and chug’ and get it done as fast as you can.”

Langston now works at a custom publishing house that produces Wal-Mart’s monthly employee magazine.

Different from journalism school

Schallom is quick to note that her thesis doesn’t judge whether it’s better for newspapers to employ centralized or local designers. She said both models have some merit. For instance, not only do the centralized centers save money, but she said they’ve helped smaller papers improve their design from the days when overburdened newsroom employees had to lay out pages in addition to writing and editing stories.

Even Apple, who said he’s “disturbed” by the consolidations, conceded that some of the centralized hubs are doing good work. He singled out Gannett’s center in Des Moines, which he said is providing some “really nice cover designs” to the chain’s newspapers in the upper Midwest, many of which never had the resources to do advanced design work on their own.

Still, Schallom says her colleagues in the graphics and design field need to understand that the environment in the centralized hubs differs from that of newsrooms and may not mesh with their expectations. She recalls that after Gannett began opening its consolidated centers in 2010, it offered positions to several of her fellow students at Missouri.

“People were taking them because they were job offers,” Schallom said, “and they were very unsatisfied because it was so much different from anything you learned in journalism school.”

Which term do you identify with, and why?

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.knilands Robert Knilands

    I know. I no longer have to deal with designers who think the real journalists don’t get it, so I don’t feel obligated to answer their questions.

  • http://www.facebook.com/munkytalk Ole Munk

    You didn’t answer my question.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.knilands Robert Knilands

    You’re making my point for me, Munk. If you’re blasting reporters for “visually illiterate requests” from the 1980s, it sounds as if you had little idea as to how to work with a staff or writers — the real journalists. Keep living the 1980s, though.

  • http://www.facebook.com/munkytalk Ole Munk

    Dear Robert – I’m thoroughly surprised that people like you are still around. How do you define “journalist”? Someone who studied journalism at a university? To be a journalist is a matter of how you think, more than anything else, and a person who uses visual tools to communicate can be every bit as much a journalist as he or she who uses words. When I think of all the stupid, visually illiterate requests for graphics and/or illustrations I got from reporters when I used to work at newspapers back in the eighties, it makes me sad to experience that some people in our business still believe, in 2013, that they are the only ones capable of creating journalism.

  • Sara Reeves

    Rachel, thanks for the info. Having finished a masters myself recently, the small size of the group really stood out to me. n=1=BS and I imagine that n=10 is the same. I appreciate your comments and your advisers comments below that helped explain more of what went into the thesis.

    The concept resonates with me personally, as I went to journalism school, got a journalism degree, and became a journalist. It just so happens that the form of journalist I was best suited for was design. I think it is likely you can see the same thing for copy editors. Those that come from an English background may view their jobs differently than those from a journalism background. I wonder if it can even be expanded into feature writing, where you may find storytellers distinguishing themselves from journalists? Just a thought.

    Something I am curious about is the wide variety of positions that seem to be encompassed in “designer” in this discussion. I worked for papers that distinguished between designers and the graphics department. At those papers, the designers were almost always people who considered themselves journalists. However, within the graphics department there would be more variety.

  • http://www.pressassociation.com/digital/graphics.html Graeme Park

    I research, write, design and draw information graphics therefore consider myself a journalist – if I simply took “content” and made it look good on a page I would consider myself a designer.
    In the UK, although few in number, we are graphic journalists, a better description of the role I think

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.knilands Robert Knilands

    You went down the wrong road. The thesis should have been: “Designers aren’t journalists. Here’s why.” Then the paper would have practically written itself, with lots of examples of designers making huge mistakes and then blaming others. You also could have included the myriad examples of designers being blissfully ignorant of news and news judgment. Then you could have concluded with the tragicomedy of designers who couldn’t write a sentence but who thought they could tell their newsrooms they would “show them the way.”

    As a sidebar, you could have included the numerous articles from sources like Poynter who keep claiming design “works” but who have no numbers, facts, or evidence to back this up. For most topics, someone actually has to have numbers, facts, or evidence, but somehow for the topic of design, people can reverse the numbers (some might call this “lying”) and not worry about being questioned.
    In summary, it sounds like half your paper is dead-on, and the other half is completely wrong.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.knilands Robert Knilands

    Designers aren’t journalists.

    ““They really didn’t want to work with the editors and the reporters,” Schallom said.” Really? Stunner. The same could be said about designers in the newsrooms.

    “Dozens of other papers around the country now employ no designers or graphic artists at all.” Good.

    Other than those two points, the rest of this article is horrible. Why in the world would you ask a source about hiring practices if that person hasn’t been in a hiring position for years?

    “It also spotlights the potential challenge faced by journalistically-trained designers …” No. There is no such person.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.knilands Robert Knilands

    “Too often, I see news designers acting like they work on a different planet than the content creators. It seems to upset them when collaboration or even communication with “the other side” is forced upon them.”
    Bingo. You nailed it.
    Designers are not journalists. I could list the numerous reasons, but I’ve done that often.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.knilands Robert Knilands

    There isn’t much to chew on. Designers aren’t journalists — end of argument. This has been proved time and again. Poynter tries to resist, but we are talking about an organization that continually trashes the work of real writers, editors, and journalists in favor of its nonsensical, failing agenda.
    Also, try to stretch harder for new sources. Using the same source over and over is a sign of outright laziness.

  • mayerjoy

    As one of Rachel’s advisers, I’ll say that a “survey” would have been very different from in-depth interviews. Her work is some of the most thought-provoking I’ve seen from a master’s student lately. It really has me thinking about my own career. I’ve worked in a lot of areas of journalism, but design was my early focus. I’m now working as a journalist in an academic setting. I sat in Rachel’s thesis defense realizing how solidly I self-identify as a journalist, rather than as a designer or an academic. My job satisfaction and sense of self are rooted in the journalistic tasks, and that is really valuable to know. I hope others find the topic worth chewing on.

  • http://twitter.com/JennaZachary Jenna Zachary

    Schallom is quick to note that her thesis doesn’t judge whether it’s better for newspapers to employ centralized or local designers. http://www.Makingover68dollareveryhouronthelabtop.qr.net/kfah

  • http://www.facebook.com/munkytalk Ole Munk

    This is a very interesting discussion. My own survey from 1992 led to conclusions not unlike Rachel’s, so maybe things haven’t changed that much since then.
    In case you’re interested, check out “Reporter or Artist” at http://www.academia.edu/2286105/Reporter_or_Artist_the_two_would_be_nice

  • http://twitter.com/rschallom Rachel Schallom

    Hi Sara. The study included 10 in-depth interviews, but also included extensive research and lots of anecdotal examples from many other editors and designers. The split between those who identified as journalists and those who did not was very surprising to me. It is rare in research to have such polarizing results, but that’s what made this so important. There wasn’t a huge spectrum of opinions, but rather two viewpoints based on self-identification and experience in one or both of the work environments. Sharing my research is not meant to advocate for one or the other, but rather to encourage designers and news editors to think about what they enjoy and what the job can offer to see if its a good match. Since finishing my thesis, I have continued to talk to designers about this topic, and the more conversations I have, the more confident I am in my research’s results. I can send you the complete thesis if you’d like.

  • http://twitter.com/chrismlusk Chris Lusk

    Are news designers journalists? Or are they artists who happen to work with journalism? My opinion: You need to be a journalist.

    If you throw an artist with no grasp of, commitment to or passion for the principles of journalism, I believe your product suffers. News designers must understand they are playing on the same team as the reporters, photographers and editors who produce the content the designers work with. Too often, I see news designers acting like they work on a different planet than the content creators. It seems to upset them when collaboration or even communication with “the other side” is forced upon them.

    This is wrong. While designers are hired to make information visually exciting and pretty, that desire can never replace the organization’s No. 1 priority. There must be a shared commitment to achieving that goal: To provide citizens clear and accurate information they need and want to know to be better participants in their communities.

    But does that mean you must have a journalism degree? Ha! Not at all. A formal journalism education does not a journalist make. Some of the best journalists I’ve met were not “packaged and processed through” a journalism institution. And I’ve seen far too many journalism students crash and burn once they leave the comfort of the classroom. The key to all of this? Our perception of what a journalist is.

    Are you working to improve the ecosystem’s understanding of important issues and daily life? You’re a journalist. Does that mean you walk around with a notepad and an audio recorder? Do you incessantly quote the AP “style” book? Maybe, maybe not.

    By defining the term “journalist” — and all the positions with such rigid, old-school definitions, we thwart journalism’s evolution. And that evolution is a much-needed one. The world around us evolves at a mind-blowing rate. Are we willing to do the same? We should be.

  • Sara Reeves

    I came away from this article with an off-topic comment. I find it hard to believe that a graduate thesis could be based on a survey of only 10 people. No way should an adviser let that get through. Though it makes for a very interesting discussion, its based on only the most tenuous of anecdotal evidence.