Friday, November 17, 2006

verbals and visuals

A few years ago, OK, more than I would care to admit, I was a College Fellow at the Poynter Institute. They divided us up into two groups: the visuals and verbals (I think those were our self-described titles). Very infrequently did we meet, more often than not at a party, and even more infrequently did we work together.

Not unlike the Sharks and the Jets in West Side Story, writers and visual journalists don’t seem to mix well in many newsrooms. In 2002, Poynter’s Monica Moses and Roy Peter Clark attempted to utilize Mario Garcia’s concept of WED: marrying writing, editing and design. I think Mario’s concept back then was a good idea and catchy acronym, but I am not sure it encompasses all of the storytelling options of today. Unfortunately, the ‘happy couple’ had issues and ultimately Roy confessed to reading Maxim magazine (there were also some attempts at reconciliation via marriage counselor.)

Ultimately, WED seems to have fallen by the wayside, but the headaches still remain in the newsroom. There are two main problems as I see them.

First, the internet is not going away, despite what writers and editors might think or hope. Many newsrooms are still administered by people who came up through the word ranks and think in headline and text. Poynter’s first eye track study illustrated how most people entered pages through the photos and graphics and then deadline and finally stories. The Eye Track III study focused on web based pages and found some interesting things. My point is, despite the rapid changes in how news is provided and consumed, the people making decisions are more often than not verbal.

Secondly, the visual side of the newsroom can get carried away by technology and software and cool internet things and completely lose the verbal side. We also lose them when we talk about where our eye starts on a page, how it moves through a picture and entryways; they only see the words. Rob Galbraith outlines the rise of soundslides on his site and highlights the increased storytelling power that audio and slide shows of images can provide, far stronger than video on the internet in my opinion.

So where does this leave us? I am not sure, but both sides of the newsroom had better start working together, utilizing new storytelling methods or else newspapers and journalism as we know it will fade in to obscurity.

1 comment:

Kentsboss said...

What you have not touched upon here, and perhaps it is best for another entry, is the top-down nature of virtually every newsroom. Starting at the top editors and working a very short way down through the most senior editors, newsrooms are closed systems that pretty much consist of the many taking marching orders from the very, very few.
As a result, and since senior editors are more inculcated with the verbal than any other platform, the verbal continues to rule even though the visual has become nearly as important. Study after study has shown that newspapers that want their writers to use the inverted pyramid are very much built on traditional pyramids, with the power eminating downward from the top.
So here we are -- the people least likely to be in tune with the changes needed to bring newspapers into the 21st century are the ones given all the power to do just that. Anyone wonder why the news business is accused of being a dinosaur in jeopardy of extinction?