August 17, 2002

If you looked at the picture on this page before you read this sentence, you’re like most newspaper readers. If you’re not sure why that matters, you’re like most newspaper editors.

We know some things about how readers read. But we have not done nearly enough to apply them to our newspapers. In this day of declining circulations, it’s imperative that we see papers through readers’ eyes and focus on meeting readers’ needs.

This is harder than it sounds. Newspapers did not have to tailor the product to readers in their monopoly-medium past. And many journalists resist doing it now.

Research has given us glimpses of how readers experience the newspaper. First and foremost, we know that visuals are the crucial connection point.

We know that 90 percent of readers enter pages through large photos, artwork, or display type (headlines, promos, etc.).

We know that running a visual element with text makes it three times more likely that at least some of the text will be read.

We know that headlines are more likely to be read when a photo is nearby.

And we know that the bigger the picture, the more likely readers are to read the cutline – to be intrigued.

These findings, from Poynter’s Eyes on the News, are almost 10 years old. We don’t know what the Internet and the accelerating pace of life have done to attention spans, but we can guess they haven’t lengthened them.

If we were to take this information to heart, we would never cram 80 or 90 inches of text onto jump pages, because it’s throwing copy down a hole. We would never run a 50-inch public policy story illustrated with only a headline. Yet these things happen – regularly – at newspapers journalists respect.

If we were guided by what readers tell us, we’d apply these findings:

Photographs and information graphics markedly increase both comprehension of text and interest in stories. In another Poynter study, readers were significantly more likely to recall the facts of a plane crash story when it was accompanied by an information graphic. And they were more likely to report feeling interested and involved in the story when it ran with a photograph. Maximum comprehension and interest came when text was accompanied by both a photo and a graphic.

Graphics, photographs and headlines get far more attention from readers than text does. Readers take in 80 percent of the artwork and 75 percent of the photographs in the paper. They see 56 percent of the headlines. But they are aware of only 25 percent of the text, and read just a portion of that. Only about 13 percent of the stories in the paper are read in any depth – that is, at least half-read. And that’s under the best of circumstances: These test subjects, frequent newspaper readers, were uninterrupted, supervised, and given prototypes with well-written, compelling stories.

All of this adds up to a sobering truth: Readers’ experience with the paper is far more cursory than we like to admit. It means their sense of the news comes mostly from display type and images. It means that, for the average reader, the newspaper is a collection of photos, headlines, cutlines, graphics, illustrations, a story or two, and the tops of a few other stories.

Text is literally the last thing people see in the paper. That’s not to say it isn’t important. Text is, in many respects, the meat of the paper. Fill the paper with dummy type, no matter how brilliant the visuals, and people will feel unsatisfied. People subscribe to newspapers, not to mockups.

Fire the reporters and editors, and the paper loses much of its newsgathering and storytelling expertise.

Still, the industry is disproportionately text-driven. It’s led by people whose experience and comfort are with text. Its magazines, schools, and organizations are focused overwhelmingly on the issues of reporting, writing, and editing.

The newspaper reader’s experience, on the other hand, is more holistic, more visual. There’s a disconnect between how the industry views the paper and how readers do, a disconnect between many journalists’ values and the values of readers:

Most papers jump stories without hesitation, though a wealth of research shows we lose readers at the jump. Jumps interrupt the reading process and irritate readers.

Newspapers put a premium on big projects, though it’s uncertain readers do. The more respected a paper is by journalists, the more likely it is to give people ponderous four-day series to read in the 10 minutes they have to spare in the morning. That’s where the prestige is. Even the Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting goes to a big project. The result is that journalists end up writing for each other, and maybe a few sources, and not for readers.

We spend the most time in the newsroom on the communication readers give least attention to. In most newsrooms, even the most routine story goes through several editors, while photos and graphics may be plugged into pages at the last moment, with little consideration for what they really communicate.


Suspicion of visuals — and of visual journalists

Not to value visuals is not to value readers.

Valuing readers means thinking first and foremost about their convenience and gratification, not ours. It also means understanding how visual communication works: how a headline and photo immediately combine to give people the gist of a story; how an illustration sets the tone for a story; how clear information graphics depend on focus and editing. (And not many newspapers make clear information graphics.)

Making traditional journalists more visually literate is difficult because of a deep and unspoken wariness of visuals and visual journalists. While visual work is the most visible in the newspaper, visual journalists are the least visible in the industry.

Many writers and editors think what they provide is content, while visual journalists deal in form, or “presentation.” Well, visuals are content, too – from the average, harried reader’s perspective, the dominant form of content. Long before a reader has gotten to the “lead” of a story about Kosovo, the accompanying picture has spoken volumes.

But there is a tendency among industry leaders to view words as meaningful and important and visuals as superficial and peripheral. The result is that we don’t fully harness the power of visuals to make the paper more informative and more captivating.

And we misunderstand and underuse visual journalists.

A story editor I know went to a Society for News Design conference a couple of years ago and was amazed. At an editors’ or reporters’ conference, he said, there’s a sea of people reading the local paper in the morning. At the SND conference, there were only a few.

“You visual people are different,” he said.

Visual people are different, though not in the way that anecdote might suggest. I think the story editor came away thinking designers, photographers, and artists are less curious and less worldly than reporters and editors. What he saw confirmed a vague prejudice in his mind.

I know a number of brainy visual people who read history, study foreign languages, and spend hours in museums and galleries. They spend less time with the newspaper not because they are vacuous but because, well, they don’t always find the paper terribly interesting.

I’m not sure reporters and editors would either, if they didn’t have their own self-interested reasons for reading. They read to see what the copy desk did to their prose. They read to see how newsroom culture affects play of a big story. They read to see what the hotshot across the room is up to. They read to compare the leads in their paper with the leads in others. They read with the eye of an insider.

That visual journalists don’t read the newspaper this way does make them different – but it also makes them more like average readers. Indeed, visual journalists can provide valuable perspective in newsrooms because they don’t usually share the insider’s fervor.

Insiders find a lot of things interesting that don’t translate that way to lay people. To writers and editors, every story has a backdrop of who is covering it, how it was covered last year, how TV is covering it, and so on. These things lend a dimension that readers don’t see or care about. They make stories seem more exciting than they will be to readers.

Visual journalists aren’t usually caught up in these dynamics, and they may just generally think differently.

Some writers and editors have a kind of narrowness – a left-brain, linear, verbal narrowness – that takes them out of synch with the general public. Visual people, whose intelligence is often more spatial and intuitive, represent a valuable kind of diversity in the newsroom.


Getting beyond the stoics

Unfortunately, to too many editors, conveying information visually is “dumbing down.” This ignores the power of visuals to communicate intelligently, efficiently, and often subtly, below the level of consciousness. It ignores the effectiveness of well-illustrated educational books, such as the science and history series published by Time-Life, that convey information with depth, sophistication, and ease.

It also ignores the examples of newspapers that aim to be dynamic, innovative, and informative: The Virginian-, The Guardian of London, Estado de Sao Paulo, El Pais (Madrid), and La Vanguardia (Barcelona) among them. Very visual newspapers in Spain, in particular, are enjoying a renaissance American papers might envy.

Visuals communicate. They also captivate. There is an absorbing richness to masterful photography, to deft illustration. Visuals lighten the workload of the paper. They instantly reward a reader’s attention, while text must be read, solitarily, to be absorbed.

But there is a sense among hard-core, traditional journalists that using a lot of visuals is somehow cheating, that photographs and scannable display text make the paper too easy and pleasurable.

There’s the tacit sense that to be serious, a paper must also be difficult. There’s the sense that giving people information in a form that informs quickly and feeds the eye is incompatible with the public service component of what we do. By this logic, toothpaste would taste harsh and medicinal, to prove it’s doing serious work. But toothpaste manufacturers know that if toothpaste isn’t palatable, people won’t use it and teeth will rot.

Some journalists think if we view the paper as a product and readers as customers who must be wooed, that we’ll compromise our ability to serve the public good.

Giving people their news in a form that works for them is the ultimate public service. There are journalists – visual journalists – in every newsroom who know how to reach readers. Include them, call on them, learn from them.


What needs to change

In the Industry…
Visual journalists should be included in the conversation about how to improve newspapers. Recently, the Pew Center and the Committee of Concerned Journalists conducted a survey on the state of the industry. They asked, among other things, if the media do a good job of making important events interesting. They polled 552 “journalists.” But they didn’t talk to people who write headlines, develop photo stories, research graphics and design pages – the people whose work readers see first and most. They polled only writers and editors. Had they asked visual journalists, they would have heard more discouraging answers.

All top editors should be visually savvy. Visuals are integral to the reader’s experience of the newspaper – and crucial to their engagement. Editors and managing editors must be schooled in the principles of visual communication. And visual journalists should be contenders for top management jobs. A reporter or editor may grow up to be executive editor, but an illustrator or photographer almost never will. This is changing, but not fast enough.

Laudable efforts to make journalism more relevant to readers – by restructuring beats or offering community solutions – should consider the power of visuals. If papers are to signal that they are changing, they must do that visually; it’s too easy to miss signs of reform in the eighth or ninth paragraphs of stories.

Trade magazines should be more well rounded. From the trades you get the sense that newsrooms are populated only by reporters and editors. In 12 installments of American Journalism Review’s “State of the American Newspaper” series, virtually nothing was said about photography, graphic design, illustration, or information graphics. There is much to be concerned about in the state of visual journalism – notably the striking exodus of visual journalists from newspapers toward magazines and online services.

Journalism organizations and conferences should provide training in visual communication, instead of focusing exclusively on writing and editing. All visuals are not created equal. “Readers decide to read based on what they see at first glance,” a cultural anthropologist said recently at Poynter. What they see are headlines and visuals. But not just any visuals draw people into stories. To be effective, photos and graphics must be coherent and work well with adjacent headlines; if they don’t, readers get impatient and move on. Visuals must also communicate substantively; readers know when they’re being lured with nutritionally empty eye candy, and they lose interest.

Visual journalism should be a mainstay in journalism school curricula, not an afterthought. Many journalism grads who apply to Poynter design seminars say they’ve had “no formal visual training.” Visuals are central in newspapers; they should be central to a journalism student’s education.

In newspapers…
Newspapers should publish more quick-hit, easily absorbed daily journalism.
They must still provide depth and context, but they need to be much more creative about making that depth manageable for readers. Pack a double-truck full of text, any text, and most readers will skip it because it looks too intimidating, too time-consuming.

Newspapers should solve the irritation of the jump, a constant impediment to reading. Illustrated “refers” or billboards on section fronts can tantalize readers into turning to an in-depth, well-displayed story inside.

Newspapers should loosen up about the front page. Too many have rigid layout formulas: five or six stories, one four-column photo, one two-column photo, day after day. This is numbing visual monotony. Why not seek to regularly surprise and delight readers?

Newsroom staffers should be encouraged to talk openly about how interesting or dull a given story is. A 1997 Newspaper Association of America study found that newspapers compare poorly to other media in terms of being “interesting,” “sparking emotion,” surprising readers and “stirring the imagination.” We should be asking each other: Why didn’t you read that six-part series? What do you find so dull about the feature section? How can it be fixed? If people in newsrooms find the paper dull, you can bet that readers will. Healthy organizations allow employees to be honest about the shortcomings of the product in order to fix them.

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Currently Deputy ME/Visuals for the Star Tribune, I spent several years as a Poynter faculty member focused on innovative story forms, reader-centric journalism and the…
Monica Moses

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