8 tips for training, hiring young newsroom designers

Tracy Collins hired 40 of the 63 designers on his staff in one fell swoop last summer, getting many of his new employees directly out of college.

They joined him at Gannett’s Phoenix Design Studio, where an average of 14,000 pages are produced each week for nine daily newspapers.

Tracy Collins

That’s a heck of a lot of pages, and a pretty young staff.

The Phoenix studio is one of five U.S. design centers that produce Gannett papers — the others are Nashville, Tenn.; Des Moines, Iowa; Asbury Park, N.J.; and Louisville, Ky. This hub system for design is becoming more common as news organizations downsize, consolidate and seek more bang for their buck—Cox Media, McClatchy, and Media General have all pursued similar strategies.

The conversion hasn’t been pain-free for Gannett, Collins said in an in-person interview. But design directors like him continue to fine-tune the process, seeking coaching strategies that will develop their designers’ skills quickly by offering them regular feedback in highly visible ways. In Collins’ case, that means giving the designers a forum to talk about what they’re doing and constantly raising the bar for what he expects.

“The young designers might have worked on their school paper, doing three pages each issue,” said Collins. “Now, they come in at night and have 20 or more pages to design and watch over. That’s a big load.”

It’s also an accelerated learning curve.

“We used to hire some entry-level people and say, ‘Guess what? For the next 18 months, you’re doing inside pages until we slowly groom you to be a cover designer,’ ” Collins said. “Now, some of these folks are on the job six weeks and they’re doing Page A1.”

The huge influx of hires was needed to meet Gannett’s schedule of moving the design of nine papers to Phoenix over eight months last year. The company offered jobs to designers at the individual newspapers, but only a few chose to make the move to Phoenix. So Collins went on recruiting missions to universities.

“I called in every favor from university professors that I had helped in the past, saying, ‘Who could you send me?’ ” he recalled.

Collins said that “we were really short of folks for a long time – until school let out for the summer. Most of our new staffers joined us in June and July.”

The arrival of the new designers came as a reprieve for the existing Phoenix staffers, many of whom had been working seven days a week.

“I often joke with the young staffers here, saying that they won the lottery,” said Collins. “They had people fawning over their skills – even if their skills maybe weren’t as advanced as what we would have considered five years ago. But they are coming right along.”

Here are principles from Collins for training, feedback and team-building:

1. Showcase good work.

Collins started a weekly newsletter for the studio to help the designers understand what was expected and see good work. For the newsletter, he selected a few pages that really stood out and wrote about why they worked. (See examples below.) “I wanted to show a standard so that people could understand what they could aspire to,” he said. “I would hear people all excited, saying ‘Oh, I made the newsletter with my page.’ ”

The studio newsletter comes out once a week.

2. Set clear standards.

Collins worked with other Gannett design directors to create standards for each group to follow, while making sure that papers in different cities kept their own design identities.

“A paper in St. George, Utah, did not want to look like a paper in Jersey City,” Collins said.

Working together, the design directors created a stylebook that standardized the smaller typographic elements (14 points of type and below), while allowing individual papers choices about larger type elements. Those larger elements give papers a chance to be “a bold, black sans-serif newspaper or a laid-back, serif-type newspaper,” Collins said. Next, he added, design tweaks are made “once papers come into the design studio to strengthen them and to try to best reflect the local community.”

The front-end system used by the design studios has also been retooled to meet production needs. “If I am working in Salem, there is a tag on the story that will set it up in Salem’s design,” said Collins. “If the story is to be shared with the Palm Springs paper, a different tag will convert it to their style.”

3. Raise the bar.

As his designers’ skills improved, “the critique part of the newsletter was almost becoming too unwieldy, because I could pick 45 or 50 pages that had met the bar where we had initially set it,” Collins said.

The answer: raise the bar. When Collins did that, the number of pages dropped to 15 or so per issue. This was good.

Raising the bar meant clearly defining what designers had to do to meet Collins’ new expectations — a design had to be not just a really good idea, but also a capable execution of details.

“It’s not just that you built a good package with a nice piece of art and clean typography, for example, but how the alignments in the package have been fine-tuned,” Collins said.

He began to feature pages that were relatively close to the bar and might have been singled out for praise in the newsletter six months ago. This time, Collins pointed out little details that would have made those pages better.

“I really dissect these pages and I probably go on ad nauseum,” said Collins. “I think all of [the designers] must think that I’m immensely anal-retentive. But I am also starting to see people pay really close attention to detail and to alignment and to organizing their page designs.”

4. Push planning and conversation.

“We sometimes have to force the conversation a bit,” Collins said. “I’ve had to ask some newspapers to institute Sunday enterprise meetings, for example, where they could then invite the designers or the creative directors to talk about how we might be able to put together a more successful package.”

There are drawbacks to the long-distance relationships among the newspapers. Collins sometimes misses the chance for face-to-face collaboration, especially when he recalls  photo discussions where everyone was able to gather around a table covered with pictures.

“It can be difficult to teach young designers about how a photo can and should be treated—especially when they can’t be in conversations with photo editors,” said Collins. “In many cases, the time for conversation is limited. The photo directors at the newspapers are also out shooting photos.”

To bridge such distances, Collins said that “we occasionally use Skype. Not all of the newsrooms are set up for it yet — it’s part of our learning curve. But there is a real value in being able to hold up a picture and talk about it within the context of a design.”

Advance planning has become a priority for Collins this year.

“We try to send out examples,” he said. “Saying, ‘This is how we worked as a result of the conversation and this is what we got as a result. We would like to do that more often with you.’ ”

For example, Collins noted that Josh Awtry, editor of The Coloradoan in Ft. Collins, Colo., comes from a really strong visual background, and his planning reflects that background, leading to better results that Phoenix is now trying to replicate.

“I have had other editors in our group call and say, ‘I want what they are getting,’ ” Collins said. “So, we start to reverse-engineer the process, to show people how it happens.”

5. Encourage honest, collaborative feedback.

Collins’ tips in the newsletter are pragmatic and conversational, going into detail, giving real examples and encouraging people to be honest with each other. Here’s some practical advice from a March newsletters about what doesn’t work:

Working with people too busy or too polite or too chummy to tell you when something sucks. We are a collegial bunch. And I like that a lot. But you owe it to your friends/co-workers to tell them if something sucks, or even just doesn’t work clearly. It’s for their benefit. For the good of the studio as a whole. Wrong answer: “Cool. Let’s go get coffee.” Right answer: Honesty. Even if it works, tell them why. That part helps you both.

He also calls on designers to share their processes and secrets of successful pages that make it into the newsletter.

6. Share advice and reward excellence.

Collins was determined to find interesting ways to pass along the best advice he received when he was just getting started, and that helped shape his career.

He instituted a monthly contest for designers, naming the awards after three people from whom he had learned a great deal: The Mario award is named for Mario Garcia; the Rodrigo is for Rodrigo Sanchez, creative director of El Mundo’s magazines; and the Zeffer is named after Joe Zeff.

Collins recalled a critique that Garcia gave him in 1994 at the American Press Institute: “Mario said, ‘There’s nothing here that’s going to knock your socks off in the design. But the design works perfectly with the story that had to be told, because it paces the reader through the story.’ And I thought, Yes! We actually thought about that when we were doing it.”

Garcia used the example as a lesson that design needs to be such an integral part of the storytelling that it’s seamless to the reader, Collins said.

“That meant so much,” he said, adding that “I have cited this so many times to my staff. It was one of the most influential moments in my career and it gave me a true north compass in trying to develop as a designer.”

At Collins’ request, Garcia composed a letter of congratulations to the winner of the first award,. Photos of the three influential designers are posted prominently in the Phoenix studio, and winners also get gift cards and a trophy.

7. Be specific.

Collins’ monthly awards go beyond mere recognition, telling the winners — and those reading — why their work was singled out.

Here’s an example from the March newsletter:

NEWS/SPORTS: Amy King had a run of terrific Page A1s for The Republic, ranging from daily A1s with breaking news (immigration plan from Capitol Hill), Sunday enterprise (the forgiving father; butterfly disease) and even secondary enterprise (the ideas that led to legislation for Arizona). Inventive typography, fun illustration, visual drama, well executed.

Runner-up: Také Uda did some strong work for Sunday and weekend editions for Reno, Visalia and Great Falls, using bold, smart presentation to sell strong enterprise work that didn’t always lend itself to great art. The key was connecting to the content (sometimes asking for key information to be broken out so he could add visual pop to the covers) and then connecting readers to that content.

BEHIND THE SCENES/INNOVATION: Given the difficulty of finding consistency in the wire workflow in 2012 as we were bringing in papers of all sizes (and the company’s wire initiative was shifting in definition), by December things were admittedly a mess. We began redefining the workflow and in February, Jodie Lau did a lot of the hard work in putting the new workflows into place — from breaking bad news to newsrooms to training them to the changes. All while juggling the loss of a key member of her team. But the hard work has been rewarded in the new workflows.

8. Hire carefully

In hiring, Collins said he looks for two things that might be the hardest elements to teach young designers: “anal-retentiveness when it comes to detail, and great typography. Those are the things that people can’t fake very well.”

“I see a lot of portfolios where I think ‘Wow, I actually know the design that you copied that from,’ ” Collins said. For student work that’s OK to a certain degree, he said, noting that inspiration comes from many sources.

“But if I don’t see typographical skills throughout their portfolio, that’s a very telling thing,” he said. “If you don’t have the propensity to do it on your own, you probably won’t be easy to teach. And if type is an afterthought in your design, then that worries me.”

He also looks for what he calls the “design-studio personality” — someone who is collaborative and will work well with both colleagues in Phoenix and with newspaper staffers over long distances.

As the teaching process continues at Gannett, the demands have been raised for designers to understand the story that’s being told and to be able to pull out and design the pertinent information, said Collins.

“We definitely have folks who understand how to interpret data and layer information,” he said. “We’re working on strong visual journalism. We lean on that kind of storytelling being integrated in the design.”

* * *

Here’s a look at three pages Collins has discussed in recent newsletters, with an eye toward what worked, what didn’t and what he’s trying to teach:

A tip from Collins, as passed along in the newsletter: “ISSUE: A bad break in an art head is still a bad break. A bad break, for those of you who haven’t done much headline writing, is when you split words across two lines that need to stay together. As you read this headline with words that need to be together, it’s ‘Tyson pulls’ and ‘no punches.’ You need to design your art heads in a way that they don’t create bad breaks. Inconvenient? Sometimes. Journalism? Yep.”
Here’s Collins: “ADDITION BY SUBTRACTION So, it’s not that I didn’t ‘get’ the illustration (in the headline). I just wouldn’t have used it. And there are several reasons why: 1) What, exactly, is it? It doesn’t match anything I see in the skyline in the ‘sculpture,’ so there’s no visual signal to the unwashed as to what it’s supposed to be, or whether it’s random. 2) With such an intriguing photograph, with such an unusual image, it really just added competition to a complicated picture. 3) The bunching of the weight in the headline to the left seems to throw things offbalance, when the shape of the picture gives such a great shape to center to. And then in the process, we also lost the centering motif in the jump line. Pretty simple fix. And in the process, enlarged the read-in slightly. But mostly focused on centering things up and allowing the focus to be more on the art.”
This page was selected for the newsletter. Here’s designer Alisha Williams on the design process: “The original art was just random (weird-angled) shots of dark breweries and glasses of beer. Nothing really lent itself to the bold information of the story. I also really wanted to break the information down into digestible pieces, especially since it’s such a popular event. After some brainstorming with the editor, I suggested using typography as a ‘label’ without being too literal. I was lucky enough to spot this nice stock shot to keep it all compact too. I love adding small graphic illustrations to stories as entry points, and this one was perfect for it. Once I was happy with the typography and alignments, I added the line art to really tie it altogether.”

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  • Robert Knilands

    Nick:

    You failed to comprehend several points.

    First, I often say design is not journalism and that designers are not
    journalists, so it’s good to see you admitting to that.

    Next, your point about the consequences of saying no is out of context. I was
    talking about the interview process.

    I think I actually agree with you on a few things. Your final point, though, is
    an example of a designer being out of touch with reality. There have ALWAYS
    been deadlines in newspapers. If a designer can’t handle a deadline, then it’s
    time for that designer to be out of newspapers.

    The rise of modern design itself was based on a bunch of people coming up with
    ways to focus on things other than editing so they could justify “not
    having time” to do things they didn’t want to do. That approach has been a
    colossal failure.

    If Gannett wants to have a studio where designers don’t have to be journalists,
    then that’s the company’s choice. But the problem is, from what I’ve seen,
    designers need a HUGE amount of supervision and guidance from actual
    journalists and editors. This situation does not allow for that, and your
    comment seems to prove that. I am not sure exactly what “B.S.
    communication” (your comment is in moderation, so I don’t know if the
    current wording will survive) took place, but this is a common problem with
    non-journalist designers and actual journalists who know how to read, edit,
    etc.

    P.S.: As I wait for your comment to go active, I will add to
    mine. It sounds like Gannett hired at least a few designers who didn’t
    understand how journalism works. I should clarify this, as most designers don’t
    understand how journalism works, but with many of them, it’s willful ignorance
    that they know they are allowed to display. In your case, it sounds like you
    really did not know how the process worked.

    I used to joke around that the perfect newsroom for
    designers would give them articles at least 2 weeks in advance, and then they
    would have all the time in the world to play their little games. But for
    something to be actual news, it has to be current. Your “communication” with
    editors might have been about those types of issues – getting relevant details
    into print. Believe it or not, readers read. They don’t sit and analyze the
    design of the newspaper. Gannett and others keep wishing otherwise, but they
    will never get what they want.

    It’s unfortunate, but not surprising, that your experience
    was such a disappointment. But it was destined to happen. The birth of modern
    design, to steal an analogy from another work, was sort of a bastard child. The
    non-journalist designers wanted the parts that were “fun” without the parts
    that were work. That might have worked for a time 30 years ago when new presses
    were coming along, and some of the innovations were improvements. But in the
    end, it simply hasn’t worked. It hasn’t delivered the circulation or readership
    that too many people still try to claim. (Poynter is one of these organizations
    that still base their claims on non-existent readership increases. Gannett is
    another, although that company is shrewd enough to couch its false product
    claims with statements like “We’re making the paper better” that aren’t
    factual.) It’s made newsrooms less professional and way more disorganized.
    Credibility and accuracy have suffered. Worst of all, it’s led to the
    destruction of copy desks that once served way more of a useful purpose than
    non-journalist designers ever have and ever will.

    I know Gannett would never do this, but its best course of
    action would be to throw in the towel on the studio idea. It’s destined to fail
    horribly.

  • Robert Knilands

    To answer some of your questions:
    I am sure there were mentors along the way, as well as mistakes.
    The difference between then and now, of course, is the Internet. Not blasting on you, but there is no reason for today’s grads to be unaware of what has been happening in journalism. My generation was unaware, and many of us paid the price. When I talk to people today, I usually say they should at least try to do what they want to do. But if anyone is going into a writing-related field, I do caution them to be far more prepared to fight for what they are worth.
    This brings me to my next point: Until more people start saying no to these ridiculous demands, they won’t stop. I remember the days of the shifts where one person would grind out 12-15 pages. Even that was far too much, and you knew that the copy wasn’t being read, and the headlines were either provided and then edited poorly to fit, or they were written off the first 2 inches of the article. Consequently, if someone said a shift — every day — would require building 30 pages, I would laugh, say no, and walk away. This also happens outside design, BTW, where people expect oceans of copy with photos to be produced at the drop of a hat.
    I should also comment on the section where you say the entire transaction took place remotely. This is probably pointing out the obvious, but that should have been a huge red flag. If the company won’t spring for the cost of you at least seeing where you would work, that’s probably a place to avoid. Also, Gannett does not exactly have a great reputation. This is again where schools need to do a better job of providing information, and where students need to do their own research.
    But no company, whether it’s Gannett, Gatehouse, or any of the other renegade outfits of today, has any reason to change its approach as long as there are large numbers of people who will take the bait. Unfortunately, through the years, there have been any number of grimmbots and others who have been brainwashed into thinking that if they don’t jump at one of these terrible jobs, they are somehow not cut out to be in the industry. There might even be some truth to that, but not in the fashion the company believes.
    Even this site perpetuates the same foolish, silly, ridiculous ideas that should be questioned immediately. Right now, we have a newsletter with “tips” where the author apparently does not even know what the Sears Tower is. Not only is this not questioned, but it is also presented as some sort of expert advice. Pathetic.

  • Matt A.

    Robert: I am a little bias as I am one of the RCG designers you are describing. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into when I was hired. I was hired during the last few weeks of school before graduation when all the pressure is on to finish with a strong design portfolio. My interviews and all the paper work leading up to my hiring was done by phone or email as I lived out of town. The job description was certainly sugar coated compared to the grueling deadlines and demands of producing daily publications with the bare minimum of staff needed. All while working with regional paper staff that already despised us. In my case I was designing upwards of 25-35 pages per shift as I was designing for three different Northern California papers. After months of seemingly endless bad days I left to pursue freelance opportunities in other industries.

    I realize that RCGs come out of school without a lot of working content knowledge but that’s where the senior staff (if Gannett hadn’t fired them all) could step up and help the RCGs learn. How did you learn the trade? I assume, as with most others, you had a mentor of sorts that helped guide you through the field and teach you new skills along the way and eventually you too became a seasoned professional. Unfortunately keeping seasoned professionals is expensive and Gannett made the terrible choice to let them go and hire an army of young people to do it in the cheapest way possible. It’s sickening but unfortunately the reality of print journalism today.

    I’m not a journalist, nor did I graduate with a degree in journalism design so I can’t speak to how journalism schools are failing their students. Thankfully I’ve found a great design position within a education technology company where there is a future and the potential for professional growth.

  • Robert Knilands

    “Next, he added, design tweaks are made “once papers come into the design studio to strengthen them and to try to best reflect the local community.””

    This is gobbledygook. How does a “design tweak” reflect the local community?

    It’d also be interesting how many newspapers expended (wasted) resources on the usual redesign panacea before these studios started making these tweaks.

    On to the Chi-Town page critique:

    “1) What, exactly, is it?”
    Seriously? Cue the ESPN NFL desk: Come on, man! Sometimes it’s better just to not write things like that; then you don’t expose yourself as a fool to everyone. I actually think the page is better without that illustration, but this reason makes no sense.
    I am not sure that being a typography “expert” (whatever that means — likely just the usual designer tactic of “concoct and repeat” long enough that someone buys into it) negates some of these nonsensical statements.

  • SaraQuinn

    Thanks for your comments, Matt. Recent changes at Gannett and other media companies have indeed been rapid-fire. Honestly, I’m still reeling from the fact that Knight-Ridder is no longer around. KR was my first employer and I thought that it would be a driving force in American journalism well into the future. I have worked for years with young journalists in newsrooms and at Poynter and I, too, will always appreciate the work of leaders like Tracy Collins.

  • Robert Knilands

    Matt:
    I don’t share your sympathy for the RCGs. They should know what they are getting into with this situation.
    The other concern that should be expressed is the lack of content knowledge these RCGs will have when they reach the burn-out stage you describe. As I mentioned already, there is no way anyone — especially a non-journalist page designer who lacks the editing, reading, and comprehension skills that people in newsrooms should have — will “understand” a story while doing 20 pages in a shift. Some of these people will have no better content-handling skills than when they entered the studio, and then they will be out looking for a new job, allegedly with “journalism” skills they don’t really have.
    Journalism schools are failing horribly if they are guiding anyone into that situation. Those degrees won’t be worth the material they’re printed on.

  • Matt A.

    As a former employee of the Phoenix Design Studio who was hired during the boom described last summer I can personally speak to the good work being promoted by Tracy. He is really doing a great job at promoting good design and typography throughout the publications that are designed in the studio.

    I believe one major point was overlooked in this article. While some 40+ newly graduated designers were hired there were countless professional causalities of senior designers, editors and writers around the country who lost their jobs when Gannett centralized the design of all regional papers. The transition for some of these regional papers was so incredibly difficult that many of the remaining staff quit within a few months. Gannett essentially traded longtime, vested employees like a commodity and cleared out the studio to make way for a considerably cheaper and highly overworked work force. Even as recently as this month they have continued to lay off senior staff, 29 at the Arizona Republic and 223 company wide.

    It’s disgusting that this model of “out with the old, in with the new” is being praised as a model for success in revitalizing print journalism. Senior staff members have a wealth of knowledge to share and could serve as great mentors and partners to the young designers who are just beginning their careers. Senior staff could also benefit from learning a thing or two from the digital generation they are mentoring. Instead Gannett has decided build its design studios on the backs of overworked and underpaid young people who will burn out in a few short years only to perpetuate the cycle of cheap labor.

    Source:
    http://blogs.phoenixnewtimes.com/valleyfever/2013/08/arizona_republics_latest_layof.php

  • Robert Knilands

    (1) Anyone who believes this wasn’t Gannett’s true goal — relocating a bunch of jobs and then filling them with RCGs when the experienced people wouldn’t/couldn’t relocate — is a fool.

    (2) Anyone who believes this: “As the teaching process continues at Gannett, the demands have been raised for designers to understand the story that’s being told and to be able to pull out and design the pertinent information …” is a fool. No one is “understanding” stories with the workload described here. Plus, if you look at the body of work, most of it is the same tired tactics — overuse of hard-to-read reverse type; overuse of “punching” one word in a headline — that designers have been failing with for years.
    (3) What about the mistakes — many, I’m told — that happen in this process? From what I’m told, the process turns into the usual game of “hot potato” that took place even before these studios. The designers claim the mistakes weren’t theirs, and if that’s disproved, the immediate response is “Someone else should have caught it.” Of course, none of that is mentioned in this article.
    RCGs who want to do real journalism — if that even still happens — should think long and hard before signing up for this circus.