Media Criticism Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader: What Gives With Newspapers’ Graphic Artists?

Newspaper editors have ushered in a golden age for graphic artists, giving them huge chunks of newspaper space formerly devoted to reporters and news.
[Screen shot / New York Times]

By Ralph Nader

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?

13 comments

  1. I am not at all surprised by this. I stopped reading the NYT, not for this, but for their position on many things….as well as the progressive journalists that they let go.

  2. God bless Ralph Nader for all he has done for the people. But things have moved on and he doesn’t seem to have kept up with it. Like many he is trying to view the current reality with old lenses and not coming up with the right questions or right actions. This is not the US of the 1970’s and never will be again. There isn’t a single aspect of our government or society that hasn’t been systemically corrupted. Lies are now the truth and wrong has become right. Illusion is more real than reality and propaganda more powerful then critical thinking.

    The country is fracturing with increasing velocity and Ralph is concerned with the graphic artists at the NYT. Go take a break Ralph, you’ve done enough…..

  3. Hello

    I am wholeheartedly in agreement with Mr Nader.

    The New York Times could easily lose readers to the many new platforms that publish thoughtful, in-depth analysis of events . Expensive graphics don’t matter.

    Lauren

  4. Ralph always thinks of aspects nobody else even notices, or at least does not register in them as it does in him. An absolute national treasure is Ralph Nader-No,an international treasure. If only the USA recognized its really valuable people it would have elected him at least once to be POTUS.
    What a better USA it could have been by now!!!

  5. I think Ralph already knows the answer to the question why are the overindulged pampered snowflake offspring of the oligarchy so dumb? To own a large business means that you will have to employ these people. So you give them busy work. The NYT is a warehouse of the snarky, bland kids who reek of unearned privilege.

  6. Oh Ralph – welcome to the world of IAs, iconoclastic anachronisms. I am one myself. Huxley wrote about us in the character of John, aka “the savage”, in Brave New World. Today we are better known simply as “primitive” or “stone age”. We are in the space known by our contemporaries as “out of touch with the real world”, “nostalgic” for the “good old times” that weren’t really so good, except that, in some respects, like the one you point out here, were … If we reject, or rebel against, the “wonders of technology”, we are “luddites”.

    We are in the process of substituting Artificial for Real Intelligence – and Virtual/Augmented Reality for the Real thing. We cannot find our way without GPS – if the cell system is down. we do not know where we are or where to go. Instead of being guided by the stars, we are guided by satellites, as long as our batteries aren’t dead.

    Love you Ralph, voted for you 4 times – but perhaps there are not enough of us IAs left to make a difference – we are offered our 21st Cent version of Soma – the question is, will we choose to take it ….

    And will this post be “moderated” by an algorithm or a real person ….

  7. Thanks, Ralph: I agree. Art is very important but not at the cost of reducing the urgent news and facts that people need to hear about the many crises we face.

  8. Clearly, the NY Times recognizes that print newspapers are obsolescent and is just hanging on by designing its paper to resemble an online page. Meanwhile, long-time Times readers are being cheated.

  9. Respectfully: what is there to have a conversation about, Mr Nader?

    It’s obvious that this is being done on purpose, to keep the rabble (that’s us) uninformed and distracted by pretty pictures. Panem et circenses.

  10. A picture (or in this case its absence) is worth a thousand words. Here’s another managerial class critic doing his duty to distract us from the graphic assault of the spike protein non-virus, and now non-vaccine, by covid-1984’s psychological warfare, fear-mongering compliant herds into Big Brother totalitarianism to make the content of this article a quaint exercise in irrelevancy.

  11. What we really need is more cartoonists like Mr. Fish and the venerable Walt Kelley and likewise, editorships with the guts to print them.

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