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Good Journalism Can Be Pretty Too

It's safe to say that the trial run for the Star Tribune's vast redesign last year has come to an end. When the Star Tribune scrapped it's traditional design last year in favor a bolder, simpler and easier-to-read design that looks a lot more like USA Today than the New York Times, there was a lot of buzz about what the implications would be and what it says about the direction of modern journalism.
Some expressed concern that the increase in graphics, photos, charts, graphs and anecdotal news clips would get in the way of quality news coverage. Others expressed optimism that the more accessible layout would keep the paper competitive in today's increasingly crowded media landscape.
Now that I have been a regular reader of the Strib for several months, I'm ready to weigh in.
Firstly, there is no doubt that the new design is more aesthetically pleasing. It's easier to read in that the headlines and story summaries jump off the page in bolder, better-featured text. But does that take away from the quality of coverage? I would argue that it doesn't ... Sure, stories may tend to be shorter in an effort to cater to attention-deficit readers, but a good journalist should be able to write a quality piece in less than 20 inches anyway.
Also, the redesign has featured a bi-weekly World section that delves much further into international affairs than the paper ever did before .... That, in my opinion, is a sign of responsible journalism. Colorful maps of the world don't hurt anyone either, afterall, who doesn't need to hone their geography knowledge a bit?
Finally, I am going to go on record as a fan of the "Have You Heard?" section that appears on the front page each day. For those unfamiliar with the section, it is a small green block of text that usually includes four or so blurbs of current-events information that don't merit an entire article in the paper. Think of them as "Water Cooler" topics for the news junkie. In response to the critics who call this form of anecdotal journalism a dumbing-down effect, I say, What's wrong with interesting journalism that gets people talking? In today's paper, for example, we learned that the Marines are banning tattoos below the elbow and knee in new recruits; that children see an average of 21 food ads a day, more than 40 percent of which are for junk food; and that a World Health Organization study found that circumsized heterosexual men are 60 percent less likely to contract HIV. While all interesting, and something one might share with a friend or co-worker, they aren't exactly fluffy. Each have the ability to spur an important public dialogue. For example, The Marines policy touches on the conservative mindset of our military today. The junk food ads likely link directly to the U.S. epidemic of child obesity. And the circumcision study could lead to new policies and efforts in the global fight against AIDS.
Of course the journalist in me would much prefer that Americans spend the time to read an entire article on each of these topics instead of a simple sentence, but today that is not our reality. The "Have You Heard?" section is our reality. Newspaper people need to embrace that if they want to keep their papers alive. Thank God the Star Tribune did.