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From DESIGN, Spring 2000

Why America lost

For the first time, no U.S. papers are judged among the world's best

By Alan Jacobson, Brass Tacks Design

Let's talk about ancient Rome for a minute.

You remember the place: home to Europe's strongest army, to a sophisticated and effective government, to cities of geyserlike fountains and public baths and really cool-looking buildings. And, not least, to a culture that snaked its tentacles throughout the known world, injecting the Roman way of doing things into the farthest-flung, most primitive mudwallows and backwaters on the continent.

You probably remember what happened to the empire, too. Having vanquished every threat beyond their walls, the Romans quit worrying about the big, bad outside world and devoted themselves to having some fun. They were as good at this as they were at conquest. They frolicked naked. They writhed in naked orgies. They fed each other grapes, often while naked.

For a while their empire marched in place. Soon, though, it got twisted and weird, and worse, it got soft. And before long came some outsiders as hungry and mean and single-minded as the Romans once had been. Alas. The mighty empire fell.

Which brings me to a recent contest you might have heard about: SND's "World's Best-Designed Newspapers." Three hundred newspapers from around the world send in samples of their pages. An international team of judges gives them the eye. And for the first time in memory, no American newspaper is among those judged the top in design.

I was one of the five judges in that competition, and while I won't say the empire has fallen, I will say this: It's turned soft.

You might complain. You might sputter with outrage. You might shake your head in disgust. But friend, when you whittle the list down to the newspapers worldwide that are truly producing the best design, those outside the United States are hungrier, meaner and more single-minded than we are.

I've participated in SND's annual competition six times, variously as a helper, facilitator, competition chairman and, on two occasions, as a judge. I've always found the judging careful and thoughtful, and have written as much in these pages. This year was no different. The judging was responsible, sober, and insightful.

We began two long days of work with the expectation that each of us would rigorously pursue excellence, and that we'd seek to recognize just a few papers at the tip of the pyramid. We wouldn't settle for the top few feet, but the very pinnacle. The absolute highest level of our craft. In other words, we'd name fewer winners than in years passed, and the few we named would truly represent the world's best.

So we started culling through the 300-plus entries, each of them composed of five complete editions. We gave them a thorough going-over. Thirty-nine papers made the first cut.

That's when the hard work really began. We discussed each of the 39, taking pains to note their strengths, rather than dwell on their weaknesses. We debated their relative merits. And eventually, we had before us a handful of newspapers that we felt best exemplified top design.

It was the shortest list of winners in SND history, which we figured would win well-deserved applause from the society's membership. Instead, it turned out to be just the right size to get a lot of folks riled.

Let's talk about some of the things you didn't find among the winners.

For starters: great photojournalism. Over the past few years a strong link has developed between winning design and strong photography. I've been taking pictures for 39 years, earned my degree in photography and worked for 20 years as a newspaper photographer and picture editor, so I can appreciate the role photojournalism plays in a paper's overall visual impact. I was pained that none of the winning entries boasted world-class photojournalism. Unfortunately, those papers that did - particularly those from Australia and the U.K. - were flawed in other ways that nixed their making our list of the best-designed. Bummer, but that's the way it is.

Another missing ingredient to success: content. Yes, the judges are instructed to consider content as well as design when whacking their way through the entries. But while this year's panel recognized content's paramount importance to a paper's overall quality, we didn't pay it much mind unless a paper had tremendous design first.

Our thinking: Everybody and his brother hands out awards for newspaper headlines, storytelling, community service. Only SND can authoritatively choose the world's best-designed papers.

Also absent: small newspapers. No small-circulation papers made the final cut this year, despite SND's longstanding efforts to attaboy them. But before you brand us sizists, let me point out that three times the number of small papers, with circulations under 50,000, made it past the first cut as medium-sized papers, with circulations of 50,000 to 175,000. A good many are right on the cusp of worldwide wonderfulness.

And what's with the weeklies this year, you might wonder. And well most of you, working as you do for broadsheet dailies, might: Most entries, after all, came from the same kind of newspaper, and in years passed, broadsheet dailies have made up the overwhelming majority of the winners. All of a sudden, this year's winners include two tabloid weeklies.

What's with this? Simple: They were two of the three best-designed papers we saw.

Is this fair? I can't say. Is it more difficult to produce world-class design on a larger page, with daily deadlines looming? Maybe. Should the competition be changed so that weeklies don't compete against dailies? I'd say it's worth a look.

Finally, of course, there's the biggest thing missing from the winners' list: papers from the United States of America.

Before we go any further, let me assure you that I, Alan Jacobson, am about as American as Charlton Heston. I can recite all of the capitals of the 50 states. I really have an uncle named Sam. It practically takes a White House security clearance just to buy a house in my neighborhood, which is ringed by Navy piers and overshot by military helicopters. Finally, I drive a Plymouth minivan, which seems to me an incontrovertible demonstration of blind patriotism.

Yet I was among the five weasels who blanked the U.S. of A. in SND's big show. Who handed two of three top honors to papers from Germany, for God's sake?

The deal is, American designers have elevated newspaper design for years, which is why SND's winners have traditionally been USAcentric. Their work has circulated worldwide. Its example has helped newspapers improve just about everywhere.

Some papers elsewhere have used their American learning as a springboard to even greater, homegrown improvement. They've been energized by their exposure to new ideas, spurred to push the edges of expectation and acceptance. They've taken chances. They've become a little dangerous.

The American papers we saw, meanwhile, have marked time. Most are of a reliably high quality, and mighty pretty to behold, but the truth is, they haven't improved all that much. Case in point: The New York Times. All the judges agreed that the Times is among the best newspapers on Earth, if not the best - but it is not, at present, among the best-designed.

All of this isn't to say that the world's best designs can no longer be Made in the U.S.A. To the contrary, the judges figure that America has such a wealth of talent and skill that it'd be surprising if we didn't get back on top.

But doing so takes more than perfecting the status quo. It may require study of the papers that studied us to get where they are. It surely will require an approach imbued with humility and honesty.

An unquenchable thirst for revenge wouldn't hurt, either.

You don't want this magazine to be printed in German, do you?