for the Journalists of Southern Africa
Gill Moodie writes exclusively for journalism.co.za:
There are few real designers in South African newspapers and if truth be told much of the layout process – especially for broadsheets – is not unlike Tetris, that diverting ‘80s video game that required you to fit together funny little shapes on deadline.
But that’s OK because newspaper design doesn’t have to be flashy or pretty – it has to be done fast and, most importantly, design considerations are secondary to projecting the content. In magazines, the features content lends itself to bells and whistles in the design department but when a newspaper has a gob-smacking exposé or a big breaking story, it’s chiefly the screaming headline and posters that grabs readers’ attention.
And the same goes for online. There are many excellent young designers working on newspaper websites today and although the fun and games you can have while designing an online package is limitless, the nature of breaking or investigative news dictates that it’s the message and not the media that must sing.
So we can hand it to the Daily Dispatch newspaper in East London and its spunky little online team that has made the finalists’ list of the prestigious CNN MultiChoice African Journalist of the Year competition in the digital category for the second year running. Last year the online team – sadly now broken up and dismantled due to financial pressures – won the award for an online investigative package on slumlords in downtown East London.
This year, the team comprising Tegan Bedser, Rudi Louw, Sino Majangaza, Asa Sokopo, Bongani Hans and Alan Eason made the cut for an online investigative package on dysfunctional schools in rural Transkei titled “Failed Futures”. (The investigation was made possible by a Taco Kuiper grant from Wits University.)
As with the slum-lords package, the “Failed Futures” online offering was in fact the complete investigative package while what was run in the (printed) newspaper was abridged. So the online package – with visuals such as maps, picture galleries, video and audio clips – was much more rich, detailed and engaging than the print version.
Both the slumlord and “Failed Futures” packages are pathfinders in South Africa for how to use online to present a big thematic news piece with a lot of detail and texture in an attractive and interesting way. One of the key challenges in the design department for graphic designer Louw – who has since left the Dispatch for the Media24 graphics team – was to organise such a large amount of information in an easy-to-use mini website.
“If you look at the skeleton of it, it’s very simple,” he says. “You don’t want to over-decorate because then it gets a bit complex for someone to read.”
The answer, it seems, is to make the design simple but bold.
Online producer Bedser says keeping it simple for users isn’t synonymous with dumbing it down. “With managing the content, you plan ahead for the kind of material you’re going to have so, for instance, Rudi (Louw) would say: ‘I’m doing this but let me know what you need in navigation’. We would say: ‘This is what we need. And these stories are going to come through from the reporters. We’re going to need to visualise them in this sort of sense. We’re going to have these print stories but what extra stuff will we have for online? What special features will we have for the website? How can we take, for instance, statistical information and make it easier for our readers to digest and also make it visually attractive and different?’
“So we had quite standard (online) features such as the (Google) map... but the ‘Book of Dreams’ put a very human face on the story,” says Bedser. “You don’t want to make it contrived. You don’t want to put in the special features just because you can. They’ve got to work with the story.”
Using WordPress meant that the Dispatch team didn’t need to build the mini-site from scratch as the platform comes with many basic themes from which to choose that can be changed and manipulated to suit one’s needs. But it also meant they had scope to be creative – with Louw being something of a WordPress whizz – as most newspaper content-management systems are the preserve of developers; not the journalists.
“The great thing about WordPress is that there are lot of tools and plug-ins (such as the Book of Dreams) out there that you can use without having to be a real Einstein,” Louw says. “If you a fiddle a bit and you know the basics of CSS (style sheet language) and the coding, you can get the look you want... It’s quick and easy really once you know what’s going on and the beauty with the back end is that the reporters can go in and write their stories in WordPress and we can tweek and style them afterwards. So it’s nice for the reporters because they can play a part too without having to be tecchies.”
Besides planning from the get-go, says Bedser, collaborative work with the reporters in the field was crucial so that developments in terms of content could be accommodated in the design as they built the shell of the mini-site.
Bedser says the biggest challenge is slotting in work on a special investigation with the normal day-to-day work. Although there was extensive planning while the investigation was being conceived and while the reporters were out in the field, once the bulk of the content was delivered the online team often had to pull together these special packages quite fast. One – “Dying to Live”, about the isolated and fearful lives of Somali immigrants in the Eastern Cape as criminals target them because they are foreigners – was pulled together and published within a week.
“Although we are small, we are incredibly dedicated,” Bedser says. “It all comes down to knowing your role and knowing what you need to produce. Even if the deadlines are tight, it is do-able... And it’s such a joy to work on something like this. So if it’s challenging, it’s all the better because it’s so stimulating.”
UPDATE, June 28, 2011: Dispatch Online's "Failed Futures" package won the online category at the CNN MultiChoice African Journalist 2011 awards ceremony, it was announced last week. The judges said in their citation: “This website won because, for the second year in a row, the ‘Daily Dispatch’ team has displayed a wonderful creativity to produce first class journalism with the new tools of the digital age. The website is about the many problems, but also the hopes and dreams of the teachers and pupils of a very poor area of Eastern Cape, South Africa. The Mbizana area has one of the worst records for education in South Africa.” (Click here for full list of the 2011 winners.)
* Full disclosure: besides running the blog Grubstreet, Moodie is married to Andrew Trench, who was editor of the Daily Dispatch at the time these projects were undertaken.