What Gives with Newspapers’ Graphic Artists?

The old saying that “art follows function” is being reversed by print newspaper editors alarmed over the shorter attention spans of readers who are moving to online news outlets. As a result, newspaper editors have ushered in a golden age for graphic artists giving them huge chunks of newspaper space formerly devoted to reporters and news.

Granted a sea of type from the old pre-TV days won’t work well in today’s visual culture. But there is still the factor of balance to be weighed.

Take, for example, one of our nation’s most serious newspapers – the New York Times. Editors used to value the front-page sections of the Sunday Times and use this space for the most important articles and features. Now editors favor graphic artists and have pushed the articles into reduced space or off the front pages of sections entirely. The readers are losing news content.

To be specific: The Times’s Sunday Business Page on August 15, 2021, devoted 80 percent of its front page to a giant ice cream sundae. That might be one reason the great financial crimes reporter, Gretchen Morgenson, left the Times. She used to regularly be on page one of the Business Page on Sundays giving indigestion to business bosses reading her exposés at breakfast. It didn’t help hearing that the editors wanted to make the section “more business-friendly.”

Long-time popular columnists of the Sunday Business section of the NYT were also dropped perhaps because of this shift in emphasis.

The August 15 NYT’s Sunday Review section, which used to be seen as the most valuable journalistic real estate in the country, offered a page one filled with a black and blue graphic, with an additional huge splash of artistry inside the section straddling the middle of two pages. Imagine the substantive reporting/commentary lost by allowing excessive art to replace function.

The NYT’s Sunday Book Review section devoted three-quarters of the front page to some figurative person in the woods. Ok, I suppose abundant art is more expected almost by definition in the Sunday Styles and the Arts and Leisure Sections, and the artists do not fail the viewing reader who likes newspapers being filled with the equivalent of magazine covers. But real readers want more news and analysis and are willing to leave the displays of modern art to the museums.

Even the photos are often too large, in some cases aspiring to bring a human face to its actual size facing the reader. I would have preferred to read more of Winona LaDuke’s interview and see less of her full-page photo. Some of her most important criticisms of the Tar Sands Pipeline that were left out could have used some of the space used for the photo.

Since graphic arts are replacing content, it seems permissible to have a conversation about such editorial judgments starting with the artists themselves. Do they really think that a full page of graphics, without indicating the stories on the inside of these sections, attracts more readers? Would they think that having just half a page for their visually-conveyed themes would turn off readers? Do they believe art should follow function and not overflow to displace it?

My efforts in the past to reach the NYT’s graphic artists editors on the telephone to discuss more balance when shortchanging readers, who receive less content, have been unsuccessful.

The Sunday Metropolitan Section with plenty of graphics is thin and scarcely tells suburban subscribers what’s going on in the city. Sometimes, bizarre topics take up enormous space with spacious visuals.

The NYT charges about $10 to deliver each Sunday Times to your home (its contractors pay the delivery person, I am told, as little as 35 cents per delivery). Subscribers to the print Sunday Times tend to be older, serious readers wanting content.

Local non-chain weeklies in small towns are only surviving by giving readers real news and features. (Such as the Storm Lake, Iowa paper, Storm Lake Times). Given the price of paper and printing, they cannot afford huge full-page visuals or even many large photographs.

Long ago I started a file titled “Design.” It grew out of the way the auto manufacturers pushed style over safety. They shaped buyers’ tastes with an annual model change heavily defined by visual trivia such as a different grille pattern or fin structure. Year after year, styling pornography displaced engineering integrity, selling vehicles without crucial, available improvements in life-saving safety, fuel efficiency, and pollution control. When art ceases to serve a function, art degrades the latter and debases itself.

Unless that is, art is presented in places plainly reserved to be for “art for art’s sake.”

As artistic displays are allowed to intrude newspapers, with few boundaries, editors are even shrinking the size of the print itself so as often not to be adequately visible. Moreover, using some background colors means some print is unreadable and invites the artists to a tutorial by an optometrist.

More and more the print size and its lightness are sacrificed to graphic layouts which leave readers squinting or leaving.

Can anyone get a NYT graphic arts director to have a conversation on this topic?

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!