Poynter at SXSW: Welcome back to the WED dance

Editor’s Note: Poynter will be at South by Southwest, the annual music, movie and interactive festival, March 7-16, in Austin, Texas. Look for our Poynter faculty members, Roy Peter Clark, Ellyn Angelotti and Kelly McBride, and digital media reporter Sam Kirkland. Here is the first in a series of posts on what we’ll be doing at SXSW.

One of the great libels against newspapers is that they’re averse to change. It’s true that newspapers could have changed more to forestall their decline. But they have changed — the newspaper of 2014 little resembles the newspaper of 1984.

I recall Orwell’s famous year – 1984 – as a tumultuous one in the history of the news business. Old gray papers were suddenly filled with color. Vertical columns gave way to modular boxes. Word processors replaced typewriters, and new forms of news writing challenged the inverted pyramid. Page designers entered the building – some with little experience in journalism – bringing with them a new lingo about white space, grids, and color saturation. Women and minorities began to establish themselves in newsrooms, reforming our sense of mission and purpose.

These innovations challenged old ideas and created friction among the players. One memorable standoff pitted the “word” journalists against the “visual” journalists. The VJs disdained writers who produced endless columns of gray text, while the Wordinistas ridiculed designers who wasted news hole with poster pages that crowded out more important content.

That was the historical context in which I began to work with Mario Garcia, the man who in the last three decades has changed the face of news across the globe, redesigning newspapers, magazines, websites, and now tablets and mobile platforms. I was the first full-time teacher hired at the Poynter Institute. Mario was the second. I taught writing. He taught design. We came to admire each other’s work. What can I say, we fell in love.

And one day, we decided to get married.

That marriage, of course, was metaphorical, a union of the minds and of professional disciplines. Mario gave it the acronym WED, the marriage of Writing, Editing, and Design. The WED concept became the subject of numerous conferences, seminars, essays, and countless newsroom conversations across the globe. We even created avatars for ourselves (though we didn’t call them that back then), manifestations of our more single-minded points of view. My avatar was Raymond Burr, the actor who played Perry Mason, a solid gray eminence so stoic and purposeful he never seemed to smile. Representing Mario was the Brazilian film actress of the 1940s Carmen Miranda, a woman of a thousand colors and textures, often photographed with a headdress that looked like a bowl of fruit.

If Raymond Burr (who in real life was as gay as a day in May) hooked up with Carmen Miranda, Mario and I could have been their love twins.

The WED honeymoon turned into real work, a re-imagining of how creative and effective news organizations could be.

We imagined:

  • that the old assembly-line production model of news could not and should not survive.
  • that collaboration across disciplines would improve journalism and serve the public good.
  • that visual and word workers had more in common than they thought, including elements of craft such as focus, emphasis, shape, color, dimension, detail, information, the power of white space, and, most important, story.
  • that versatility would become an increasingly important virtue. Versatility did not require designers to write stories or writers to design pages – although we tried that in workshops — but it did require the development of a common critical vocabulary that allowed one craftperson to speak to another “without an accent.”

One example will suffice: I learned from designers that white space was a crucial element in the creation, say, of an informational graphic describing the primary causes of an economic downturn. That white space was an antidote to clutter, visual ventilation that let the page breathe and helped relax the reader. I took that concept and began to apply it to text. Turns out there’s white space within a story or report too. Most of it occurs in the margins. But within the text itself there are bars of white space that mark the end of one paragraph and the beginning of another. I teach journalists that the words immediately before that white space get special attention from the reader. Save a key word or phrase to use in that location, I tell them. It will play jazz.

One objection to the WED concept was that it did not include enough of the players or disciplines. Where was leadership? a colleague asked. Where was photography? Why limit the players? If we added leadership, they argued, it could become the LEWD concept. Well, I said, we could add Leadership, Photo, and Ownership and create the PLOWED concept. “Turn your weapons into plowshares,” could have been our motto.

But we never intended for our WED concept remain an exclusive club of three. Writing’s W included all the word workers in the shop. Design’s D included all the visual workers. And Editing’s E included all those in a position of leadership, who needed to build bridges across disciplines. The editor needed the ability to work with words and visuals the same way that the director of a film had to understand the elements of acting, cinematography, editing, music scoring, and all the other tools of filmmaking.

During Mario’s travels around the world as a news designer, it’s become clear to him — and now to me — that the values, virtues, and practices of WED are more important than ever. In the age of the Internet, more disciplines than ever must be integrated into the creative process — including, for example, computer programming, Big Data, stories written from Big Data, data visualization, and multimedia. Journalists of every stripe must work across platforms, including mobile delivery systems. Maybe in the morning, it’s our job to help the reader lean forward with her iPhone; or at night to lean back with his iPad.

So Mario and I would like to welcome you to iWED, the integrated marriage of writing, editing, and design – a collaborative process of planning and execution that gets the very best from all creative workers in the enterprise and produces multiple products designed to build audience and serve the public interest. The two of us know no better framework for balancing the enduring values of journalism with the innovations necessary in an age of tumultuous change.

Please join us at SXSW in Austin, Texas, on Monday, March 10, at 12:30 pm. Who knows? Maybe we will end our session, as we did 30 years ago, with a dance.

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