Transdisciplinary Design

Re-framing an Old Design

Posted on December 7, 2011 | posted by:

Andy Rutledge entered a dangerous arena when he took it upon himself to redesign the digital edition of The New York Times. As if this bold move was not enough, Rutledge accompanied his design with fighting words: “News outlets seldom if ever treat content with any sort of dignity.” As expected, this blog post set off a fury of comments, some in support and others very much in opposition to his audacious attempt to redesign journalism. However, more importantly than whether or not Rutledge’s design is the perfect solution for a newspaper website (an oxymoron in itself), the most intriguing aspect of his redesign attempt is the way he entirely re-framed the issues of new journalism as a simple design question.

By provoking The New York Times, Rutledge not only critiqued a very busy paper website but surfaced several core issues that journalism needs to deal with. The development from print to digital has so far been a failure; it has not evolved in a natural way but rather the digital medium is a direct interpretation of the print medium in a misguided effort to preserve the feel of a newspaper (much in the same way iBooks let users “turn” pages). Unfortunately this understanding of journalism neither highlights the best qualities of the printed medium, nor uses technology to its full potential.

When Bruce Nussbaum visited our Transdisciplinary Design seminar recently he touched briefly on the subject of journalism but spent much of his time speaking more broadly about “re-framing.” He says, “the power of narrative framing—and re-framing—is enormous. It is one of the key forces behind disruptive innovation and entrepreneurial capitalism.” As we all know, daily papers and magazines are failing economically and being replaced with bloggers in an environment where it is difficult to tell who speaks with authority or knowledge. Journalism needs to be re-framed not only in order to survive, but also because it can be made better through technology. But this will take this sort of “disruptive innovation” Nussbaum mentioned and Rutledge is starting to uncover.

The question that must be asked is: “how can journalism be re-framed without losing its integrity?” I just a few sentences, Bruce re-framed the issue from one of desperation—how do we save journalism?—to one of hope and excitement—how can journalism be made better? Instead of leaving the role of the journalist as gatherer and disseminator of news, journalists could take on the role of discussion leader in a way that might enhance the everyday persons’ understanding of the world around them.

However, before discussing this exciting possibility, it’s important to understand why this transformation has not already happened. Steven Johnson writes about ideas of emergent and hierarchical systems in his book Emergence. Journalism has traditionally been a hierarchical structure with Editor-In-Chief at the top and reader at the bottom. With new technologies this relationship is changing. But new journalism cannot be defined by old journalism. At the same time, it is essential to value the expertise and experience of people who started in this field when typewriters and film cameras were still used. Their knowledge about ethics, style, structure, the skill of reporting and so on is incredibly significant and needs to find a place in this conversation. However, if allowed to dominate the conversation, we might continue to just see a newspaper on a website.

The transformation becomes: “about altering a system’s behavior in response to patterns in ways that make the system more successful at whatever goal it’s pursuing” (Johnson, 104). Those most familiar with traditional journalism are understandably hesitant to turn this institution over to a different generation that never knew newspapers in their glory days and might have different goals for the future of journalism; but importantly the system’s behavior must change. A middle ground needs to be found or we will lose something of immeasurable value (newspapers, journalism) and miss an opportunity for meaningful design. So how do you have an emergent system that doesn’t neglect years of experience but channels this expertise into something better while also transcending generational and technological differences? By no means does Andy Rutledge have the perfect solution, but at least he’s starting to ask the right questions.