I didn’t learn much about art in journalism school. The professors who taught reporting, writing and editing focused on gathering information, checking facts and writing a story that answered the five Ws: who, what, when, where and why. The art – if there was any at all – was someone else’s job.
When I was reporting for newspapers, editors started asking me to gather art as well as information. Ask your sources for mug shots, they’d say. It was the 1980s, and USA Today had defied the critics who called it a cartoon newspaper, making the then-unfamiliar concept of infographics popular. Suddenly editors were demanding that I get statistics the art department could use to make fancy, colorful charts. I, and my reporter colleagues, considered it a burden.
I didn’t learn the value of art until I became a magazine editor. And it didn’t come easily. I butted heads with more than one art director who demanded we sacrifice text in order to make room for a photo spread, illustration or graphic. In the art director’s mind, a picture literally was worth a thousand words. The worst was when he wanted neither words nor pictures – he wanted aesthetically pleasing white space. To me, white space was nothing more than a hole that needed to be filled, preferably with words.
Gradually and grudgingly, I began to appreciate the role art can play in journalism. I became the dreaded editor who demanded that reporters gather good art material along with the facts and quotes for their stories. Some great art directors taught me how important the presentation of a story can be. They showed me how art can heighten the impact of a hard-hitting piece of investigative reporting. How a good custom photo of a CEO can reveal character and pique interest, thus pulling the reader into the article. How a well-designed graphic can convey more information than paragraphs full of tedious statistics. How unusual typography can convey the mood of a story. I even started to like white space.
By the time I left that magazine, I was a complete convert. I had grown to love art and respect the creativity of art directors. One of the favorite parts of my job was the art meeting for each issue, where we brainstormed what kind of art to develop for each feature and what we should do on the cover.
That type of collaboration – the union of great writing with great artwork – seems rare today. For one thing, there aren’t many magazines left that can afford to invest in expensive photos or illustrations. Second, as print has waned and the Web waxed, tasteful art designed to support the story seems to have fallen into the background. Indeed, on the Web the layout of stories is still awkward, much less artistic. I rarely see anything comparable to a two-page magazine spread that pops out at readers and demands their attention. (Although Gannett’s experimental online magazine, The Bold Italic, is an interesting attempt.) And magazine covers? Sort of an anachronism, although publishers still reproduce on the Web what they’ve done in print.
But as more online magazines experiment with multimedia, that’s starting to change. Designers are using new types of art, including video and audio, to illustrate stories. (Hmmm, I can think of lots of different sounds and music that could accompany a story on, say, the BP oil spill, but what about an article on the latest wireless technology?)
Editors are asking for podcasts and even videocasts of interviews. With all this new technology, journalism is going to become much more than just reporting and writing. We journalists are going to have to loosen our exclusive reliance on the written word and learn how to use other media creatively. For those who do, journalism will become more art than craft. And for some of us, it just might become more fun than work.