THE sudden departure of Jill Abramson, the executive editor of The New York Times, caused a torrent of comment in the blogosphere. The first assumptions were that she never would have been sacked if she were a man. The publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, after an opaque announcement, added some reasons for firing her: “Arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues.”
That did not get him off the hook with the women. Norah O’Donnell of CBS This Morning asked Ken Auletta, sweetly, “Were there other editors of The New York Times who were difficult-to-work-for hotheads?”
Well, yes. Abe Rosenthal comes to mind. My own departure from The New York Times newsroom in 1985, although self-inflicted, was described by Ruth Gilbert: “There is a report that you were seen running from the Times followed by a gigantic explosion.” After I told Abe that I was quitting to go to Newsweek, he became enraged, pushing me out of his office, and then running after me through the newsroom, yelling, “You ungrateful bastard!”
I remember journalists looking up from their desks, shocked. But they didn’t look surprised. Abe was a notorious hothead, but the most brilliant editor I ever worked for. And The New York Times of that era made enormous, exciting improvements in all areas, including design. (For example: The crusades like the Pentagon Papers, the investigative teams that brought in prize-winning stories like the Marine Barracks bombing, and the four-section daily.) Abe believed that pictures could tell news stories, too, and moved Lou Silverstein, the greatest art director in the history of newspapers, to a position of trust and power.
Roy Peter Clark of Poynter asked on Twitter, “Who would you prefer as your boss, a great journalist or a great manager? If u can’t have both.” My fulsome answer: “The one who’d make a great news publication.” David Hyder, tweeted back from Yanbu on the Red Sea, “You can only manage what you understand.”
So it is. Occasionally you get a great manager who is also a great editor. I worked for John Carroll at the Baltimore Sun and the Los Angeles Times. He was a thought leader. And he had vision. Thought leaders are more effective if they can do as well as think. And John could do it better than anyone in those newsrooms; he made brilliant assignments, and he would work into the night polishing a story himself. Moreover, after the first year at the LA Times he had quietly rearranged the news department in a way that would make Machiavelli proud. The truculent old guard was sidetracked. Desks disappeared like Trotsky in official Soviet photos, so that you couldn’t quite remember who had been there. And the paper won seven Pulitzer in his first full year.
His successor, Dean Baquet, could not turn back the aggressive billionaire stupidity of Sam Zell, and quit. People liked Dean, too, but some of the energy went out of the paper. For one thing he moved the designer Joe Hutchinson from Deputy Managing Editor to Creative Director. If you work in an ad agency you may not think this is a demotion.
Tyrannical monsters like Abe, or Jann Wenner, my boss at Rolling Stone in the 70s, step on a lot of feelings. They unnerve employes with unpredictable, bull-headed orders. They play favorites. I enjoyed pet status with both, which did not make me popular, but I learned a great deal, and benefited from the constant pushing. These tyrants enabled my success, as a designer. And with an uneven staff that wasn’t easy to replace (Abe because of the union, and Jann because of inexperience and budget), favorites may be the only way to go.
In my mind they are both great managers. Look at they way Abe created stars like Joel Brinkley, John Darnton, Tom Friedman, Paul Goldberger, Alan Riding, and John Nobel Wilford. As Jann did with Tim Cahill, Cameron Crowe, Joe Eszterhas, Mikal Gilmore, Kurt Loder, Joe Klein, Greil Marcus, Matt Taibbi and Charles M. Young,
Ask these guys (noted, all guys) how they found Abe and Jann as managers. And ask the readers what they thought of the publications. No one remembers if Harold Ross or H. L. Mencken or Walter Lippman or Harold Hayes were “good managers.” But anyone who studies the history of the media must regard the New Yorker, American Mercury, New York World, and Esquire as the best publications in the 20th century.
After Abe retired (interestingly no Times executive editor since has made it to the 65-years mandatory retirement age), he was replaced with the smiling, distinguished Max Frankel, Abe’s old rival. Punch Sulzberger, Arthur’s father, wanted him to “make the newsroom a happy place again,” according to Frankel’s memoirs. No doubt a bit of healing was called for, but his impending arrival and his lack of interest in visual journalism (reflected in his years as Sunday editor), lead me to consider the Newsweek job in the first place. Sure enough, Frankel took a while to even appoint a single design director, Tom Bodkin. And longer to put him on the masthead. Watching masthead moves is a kind of Kremlinology, but the result could be seen in the paper, which visually kept losing energy for more than a decade, despite Tom’s considerable efforts.
Howell Raines, appointed as Arthur’s Patton, brought back some visual energy. It coasted under Bill Keller (although, to be fair, there were enormous distractions as advertising declined and the business side tried to figure out a new model.) Jill made Bodkin a deputy managing editor. His redesign of the IHT (now the INYT) culminates the work he’s done with the typography of the paper. And Jill pushed Ian Adelman, a genius of digital publication designer, on the effort to rethink the digital product. Both Tom and Ian are good managers, and they’ve made the visual brand shine like the glory days of Lou Silverstein.
AND now we have Dean Baquet. He’s a team player, and will try to calm the waters. His arrival puts him at an unfortunate disadvantage, but Dean is no slouch at newsroom politics, either. I remember how he moved aside his co-managing editor rival, John Montorio (now at Huff Post). But what about the overall presentation and visual content of The Times?
David Carr weighed in, surprisingly, on the side of the boss: “To the extent that The New York Times does anything remarkable, it emerges from collaboration and shared enterprise. It’s worth remembering that its legacy begets an excellence that surpasses the particulars of who produces it.”
Well that may be. But who is managing the managers? It seems to me that if you have an executive editor who is scaring people, the publisher needs to fix the situation. And it’s a lot easier to build communication skills and collaboration in a direct-report than to build talent and zeal. This firing was more Arthur’s failure than Jill’s. This 30-year cycle of crazy energy followed by well-managed lethargy must be obvious to the owners.
The proof is in the paper. You get a great publication with an editor who makes things happen. Jill Abramson (like Abe Rosenthal and Howell Raines) may have rough spots, but what a great news publication the Times was in their years, in print and now in digital. And how good has it looked!
A TRIP to Yangon has set me thinking about what endures in a culture, and what we want to save. I wrote a post for Hi, that starts: . . . This weekend I’m staying at the Strand Hotel in Yangon, Myanmar, a classic British colonial hotel (1901) once connected with Raffles in Singapore. Dark wood, cream walls, stone trim, a gentle staff. Restored but not Dorchestered.
When it was built, this was Rangoon, Burma. Here in the oldest part the British city, right on the river, you get an idea of what it was like 100 years ago when their empire was heading toward its zenith and the port was one of the biggest in Southern Asia.
The hotel is on Strand Road, and the grid of streets around it, superimposed on the ancient city, are lined with colonial buildings, most in a terrible state of repair. A block north on Merchant Road, I saw a big crumbling blue building with corner turrets that I found out had been the tax office. Walking up Bo Ang Kyaw Street (formerly Sparks Street) I came to the giant Secretariat (1902), the colony’s administrative complex, occupying a large city block. It was the site of the ﬁrst parliament where Aung San, father of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, was assassinated in 1947.
WHAT year is it now? Seems inconceivable that anyone could spend the better part of a year working (hard) on a redesign of a printed magazine. I mean, aren’t magazines over? Passé? Finito? A thing of the 20th century? Don’t we want to spend our time weaving our own magazine content from readers like Flipboard? Or just dial in from a link in a tweet?
And aren’t they all going out of business anyway?
Well, maybe some of them are, and maybe there are lots of ways to browse content using your friends’ suggestions and the curation of bloggers and new social tools. And there are several cool digital magazines (I always cite Verve and Vice, and am taken with Hi.co).
None of these accomplish what a great magazine does: Bring together an an interesting, carefully chosen variety of articles and pictures. The French word magazine means storehouse. Merriam-Webster defines the English, “a part of the gun that holds bullets.” I like both.
But nothing digital has yet matched the experience of reading a magazine. We all love good stories (witness the faithful movie audience), told with a beginning, a middle and an end, and there is something wonderful about the collection of stories brought to life with great photographs, and arranged in a beautiful way. Designed.
A prejudice has crept into our thinking about media, since McLuhan, that if it’s not interactive, it’s no good. Okay, but magazines (and movies) may be one-way, one-to-many media, and not a social scramble like Facebook. But the good ones are evoke all kinds of participation from readers and viewers. You have to follow the story, read it or watch it, and bringing all kinds of knowledge and experience for it to absorb you. It’s like a great meal. The chef “curates” all kinds of ingredients, prepares them in a deft way, and creates and experience that is both satisfying and delightful. You don’t have to have read Proust for the smells and tastes of the dinner to bring out all kinds associations of culture and your personal history. J’avais cessé de me sentir médiocre, contingent, mortel. D’où avait pu venir à moi, cette joie toute-puissante?
When I was 12, I subscribed to Show magazine, designed by the great Henry Wolf (working for the prototypical billionaire Huntington Hartford). It was like taking a warm bath. You just let it wash over you. The combination of images, layout and writing, gave me an insight into the adult world that I never forgot. And the tactile quality of reading Show, I’ll never forget. The glossy paper, and the scratchy layer of color ink. And the smell.
And if you think that’s not interactive, then you’ve missed the joy of reading a great magazine.
Well, in several years of searching for a viable, immersive digital platform that could give a true magazine experience (I’m still working on that, still believe it can be done) I had gotten away from print design. But when I heard that Edipresse was looking for a creative director, I came out to Hong Kong and quickly made a deal to serve as “creative director” (a title I’ve never liked) on an open-ended contract.
This is the the group that publishes the Tatler magazines in Asia. They are oversized and printed beautifully on thick white paper. A typical issue has nearly 400 pages. They’re filled with luxury advertising and picture of high-end parties.
These are the ingredients that make for a robust business plan when the mass-media models in the U.S. and Europe are fading. By concentrating on the top end of the market, the upper end of the 1%, and offering an artisan product, they can attract advertising from the luxury brands, mostly European brands, that have enjoyed enormous growth in Asia over the last decade. Carter, Chanel, Hermes, Rolls Royce, Louis Vuitton, Van Cleef & Arpels, Chopard, and on and on.
But lots of magazines want to appeal to the high-net-worth audience. How do you actually connect? The Asia Tatlers (they’re always modified with a place name, after an agreement with Condé Nast which owns the Tatler in London) have an editorial principle that is like the old saying of newspaper publishers:
Try to print the name (and photo) of every reader at least once a year, not including arrest stories or obituaries.
By being smart, attractive and available, Hong Kong Tatler and the editions in China, Singapore, Taiwan, Macau, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand get invited to all the great parties in town. Each has its own social-season-opener, The Tatler Ball. They run tons of event pictures, many of them exclusive. And then they profile the most interesting and prominent of these wealthy and successful folks, in short articles, in big features, and on the cover.
Since this coverage is good and the pictures are rich and flattering, these one-percenters are happy to get the magazine (it’s just mailed to them, and the Asia Tatler lists are one of their biggest assets). They’re eager to look through each issue and see who they know inside. Or, who they might want to know. It’s fun.
The editors add much coverage of fashion, high jewelry, watches and the luxury lifestyle. The style is clever and light, and it is all readable. They don’t waste a lot of space on serious matters of state, so it’s all upbeat. The result: A big success.
The previous design of the Asia Tatlers was done by two former colleagues, Maryjane Fahey and Mariana Ochs. And they did a great job, taking a somewhat random publication and enforcing a lively hierarchy with big vertical section titles set in a typeface I had never seen before, Corundum.
Indeed, when the marketing folks at Edipresse asked for before-and-after comparisons to promote the redesign, I told them that was the wrong approach. The “after” doesn’t necessarily look better than the “before.” It’s calmer, yes. More elegant, with a greater emphasis on visual content. But times have changed, the magazines have new editorial leadership, and the Tatlers needed to change, too.
Instead of an upheaval, a redesign for a successful magazine should keep it recognizable to readers and advertisers. “The question is, how do you make Tatler, more Tatler?,” I asked in a promotional video. “How do you intensify Tatler to make it more interesting? And a little easier to read?”
One asset to build upon was the Corundum. This was designed by Josh Darden, first as a text face which you can see on his site. Maryjane and Mariana got him to make a display size, and then a banner size. The font is based on the typefaces of Pierre Simon Fournier in the mid 18th century. Fournier was the inevitable next step in French type design, moving from the classical old styles of Claude Garamond in the 16th century, through the higher contrast of Phillipe Grandjean in the 17th, on the way to the extreme contrast of Didot, who came just 30 years after Fournier.
Type design always seems to lag art movements, and Corundum is really a Baroque style, coming at the end of that era. The neoclassical style of Didot displaced the pre-Revolutionary type of Fournier. It was not until the 20th century that it was revived (by Stanley Morrison at Monotype). But Darden’s version is historically sound, and it’s a remarkably readable, but stylish typeface. Beats Bodoni and even Caslon hands down.
To the optical sizes Text, Display and Super, Darden added a high-x-height “News” size for M & M (as the folks in Hong Kong call them). A little more contrasty than the Text, we tested the two side by side, and decided to stay with News (after moving the kerning default from “optics” to “metrics”in Adobe InDesign, of course). Missing was a deck size, something for standfirsts (decks), so we used the Text.
Following the old studio’s practice of specking a serif, a sans serif, and a “fancy” M&M brought in three more Darden faces: Freight, a very purposeful sans; Omnes, a sans with rounded corners; and Julie, a contemporary slab. This seemed like too much to me. Any of the styles were a bit busy to work well with Corundum, and too noisy to sit in background on the fashion pages. But all three?
I thought of simplifying things with my regular default, Benton Sans, but then I remembered Forma, the midcentury Roman design by Aldo Novarese, which had disappeared with the end of metal type. Convincing Edipresse to commission a revival, I got David Jonathan Ross at the Font Bureau to design a digital version. The whole story is on the Font Bureau blog, written by Indra Kupferschmid, who not only did the research, but found foundry metal and proofed it for David to work from.
To keep it simple, I commissioned just two weights, light and bold. But as Indra, DJR and I studied the proofs, we realized that there were several sizes of the master drawings for the font. The details that made Forma lively and different, the tapers and rounded corners, were more pronounced as the sizes got smaller. So David made five sizes of the new Forma—Micro, Text, Deck, Display and Banner.
As fonts are the basis of typography, typography is the basis of any redesign, since it is the typefaces, the type specs and typographical structures that can go on, from issue to issue. For the redesign, we followed my usual project plan: brief, design, prototype, implementation . . . and assessment. The brief was pretty much as stated at the beginning of this post.
There was some discussion of art direction as well. A new emphasis on narrative photography was called for in the feature section (and Gillian Nadel was given the title, director of photography). I wanted to see more direct portraiture, with less reliance on sets and props, and more natural hair and makeup.
The key here is that the focus of the Tatler art direction is real people, not movie stars or models.
Right after I arrived in Hong Kong, I met Kim Robinson at a dinner party thrown by Bonnae Goksun, the queen of cakes, and subject of the first cover I worked on for Hong Kong Tatler. Kim has been the most sought-after hair stylist in town for years, and his salon in the Chatar House in Central would make Oribe jealous. His feeling was that if you put a regular woman, however stylish and poised, in a formal gown, covered her face in makeup, and surround her with gilded bibelots and velvet draperies, she would look . . . old.
In the effort to luxurious, Tatler could look stuffy, older-generation. With Kim Robinson’s help, we could bring in some fresh air, and a bit of youth.
The Edipresse brass, led by CEO Barrie Goodridge and editorial director Sean Fitzpatrick, had been working for a year on a redesign before I got there. They had hired another New York designer who produced a lot of good pages, and had pushed for clear covers with great portraits and simple backgrounds. For one reason or another, that design never got to a round of prototypes, but not to the point of approval, so a task for me was to see what could be saved from all the effort.
I like to create a design space, with a number of pages along a linear axis. We called the poles: Gold and Red. For the “Gold,” I got Hong Kong Tatler art director Nazri Razak, who had been working on the first design, to continue in that direction. And I did the “Red.” As is often the case, the decision was to blend the two, with the knob on the slider bar closer to Gold than Red. (Of course, it behooves a publication designer to know this could happen, and to design the poles from the beginning so they could be interpolated.)
By the end September 2013 we had a design direction decision, and began to work on a prototype. Paul Kay, a former editor of HKT was brought in wrangle the content, and we had a printed prototype in November, and meet in Singapore with the chairman of Edipresse, Pierre Lamuniere.
Green light for the March issues.
So now we needed templates in a big hurry. There were five other editions that launching at the same time, and I wanted to move the group to a template-based design system so the designers could spend more time on visual content, and less building pages. Robb Rice, who developed the methodology for Ready-Media with Eduardo Danilo, was engaged to show us how to make InDesign templates. And then Nazri plunged in building them. Christmas and Chinese New Years seem to get in the way, but we were well into the first issues by mid-January. The close was the end of the month. Press dates began around the 15th.
THIS summer, I am moving to Hong Kong. And I’m changing, after 25 years from consulting to working for one specific, expanding publication group: Edipresse Asia. With publications in China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, Edipresse Asia has a small and talented team led by Barrie Goodridge, CEO and Sean Fitzpatrick, group editorial director.
Since print is still robust in this booming part of the world, they are getting a chance to get the digital transformation right. And, I’ll get a chance to do what I’ve always loved doing, design magazines.
I’ll tell you more about it as I make the move. Meanwhile, following is the release sent out today.
IN a new year it’s always tempting to think about new beginnings, only later to realize that the calendar is arbitrary, and change is non-linear. This year in publishing there is great hope for new beginnings, and the fear if we don’t find the restart button, we many not have the established magazines and newspapers much longer.
Late in 2012, the death of the print Newsweek and the all-digital The Daily caused much harrumphing from the I-told-you-so crowd. “Print is dead, and the old guys just don’t get it.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. But these casualties were more the result of bad business models, bad management and bad content, than the general decline of the media.
Newsweek failed to preserve any of its equity under the Daily Beast regime, discarding the “news” part of its name. It lacked a multi-platform strategy (the Newsweek.com site was actually shut down when Tina Brown took over), and the rethought magazine seemed too little, too late. The Daily came on as a megaton app, with some interesting breadth, but with none of the depth of the great news sites. Distribution was limited to iPad, which even now misses 80 percent of the market. Strange that Rupert didn’t repackage the WSJ and the London Times instead of starting from scratch. It was more of a case of too much (in the sense of download time), too soon.
We should avoid generalizations about these deaths, but there are important object lessons, as we push along toward new models. While funeral notices flooded in, we started to hear background murmurs of a counter-trend. This was the arrival of some new stripped-down digital publications, led by Marco Arment’s The Magazine.
The idea is to put together a simple collection of articles, each with a bit of artwork, and wrap them into a small iPad app. Fast to download, and easy on the credit card. (The Magazine is $1.99/month, with a seven-day free trial.)
The estimable Craig Mod calls this form, “subcompact publishing,” named after the first subcompact, the Honda N360, a welcome rethink of the automobile after Detroit bloated their cars with so many features it is surprising they could even move.
Mod defined subcompact publishing in a November post with these characteristics:
Small issue sizes (3-7 articles / issue)
Small file sizes
Digital-aware subscription prices
Fluid publishing schedule
Scroll (don’t paginate)
Touching the open web
Hamish McKenzie, the alert reporter at Pando Daily,jumped on this idea, and pointed to a new example, The Awl’s Weekend Companion, an app spinoff from the content-rich website, The Awl.
“Premium micropublishing” is the term offered by McKenzie. “Premium” means “not free.” A low-priced subscription model may allow bloggers to move up a step in the media food chain and get a little compensation. “Thanks to our increasingly mobile-centric reading habits,” he says, “subscriptions may be making a comeback.”
McKenzie cited the announcement of The Periodical Company, which started in a hack-a-thon and was inspired in part by Mod’s subcompact idea, and perhaps by Arment’s 60s-style generic brand name. Periodical is planning to offer “digital magazines as a service,” with a CMS and design themes, distributed to the web and to the iOS Newsstand.
Cool. It will be interesting to see the design. Mod’s model makes sense (except of course for the “scroll, don’t paginate” part). Mod likes readable publications in the way that Readability is readable. Nice, almost pretty Typekit fonts. Good margins. Lots of leading. One column.
The Magazine is designed in this style. It depends on the writing for excitement; it looks more like a journal or a diary than a magazine. In fact it is a reader, with the UI derived from smartphones. Simple one-column layout, and so stripped-down, to get to the nav on an iPhone, you have to scroll back to the top. On the iPad, the TOC scrubber is a drawer that rolls out when you hit a little icon in the upper left corner. Nevertheless, I like this experience better on the phone, which it is clearly designed for. The iPad version seems a little, uh, bland.
Mod got a great reaction to the subcompact idea, and he replied to some of the feedback, around the time The Daily perished. That thing was a boat, a 70s Mercury Marquis, fully loaded, and it deserved to be towed to the junk yard. But is the subcompact the answer, or just an answer?
Dan Neil’s review of the Ford Focus ST notwithstanding, what I want is an Audi 6 in metallic gray, or maybe a Cayenne Turbo with 500 horses and tough off-road tires. Particularly for a long trip, on and off the blue highways.
The subcompact is like a shower. It’s efficient and economical. But sometimes what you want is a Jacuzzi. Magazines are like that, too. While a brisk five-minute glance of sThe Economist in print, with its classic newsmagazine layout, can be refreshing and helpful, sometimes you want to dive into a more beautiful body of water, like Esquire, or Vogue., or the FT’s How To Spend It.
Mod is a fine designer (look at that web site!), but he may have been conditioned by growing up with a web that is a rushing stream of items. We’re used to this river of stuff from everywhere, served up raw by Google News, or nicely repackaged by Flipboard (where he worked for a while). You could get drowned in this flood of content, and never get clean.
Web sites have not provided that gourmet bathing experience (remember Wet magazine?!). Nor do the digital replicas of rusty old Mercuries that you see in the Next Issue app. The water comes out too slowly, and by the time you get in, the bath is cold.
This subcompact model won’t provide that either, useful though it may be very useful, for emerging digital-only publishers . . . and readers. In order to attract and keep an audience, publications, even niche publications, have found that they need more stuff: a variety of approaches and story lengths, and some strong visual content.
Mod doesn’t want to bulk up his little vehicle with a bunch of crap, but, as Mario Garcia pointed out in iPad Design Lab, people have come to expect a little digital fun in an app, every so often. (And advertisers do, too.)
Savory, our Treesaver-publication-as-service startup, has the ambition to be more than just transportation from Point A to Point B. Once we get a lot more themes and iOS and Android wrappers—planned for 2013—a Savory pub can be immersive, fun, and it will run on all platforms. The idea is to have a rich, immersive experience, which you don’t get on a Kindle, or The Magazine—except if you get swept away by the writing.
Okay, so maybe the Cayenne metaphor is a bit heavy, and eco-unfriendly. How about a plug-in Tesla Model S? Three-hundred mile range, and 0-60 in 6.5 seconds. That’s the digital publishing model I’m looking for.