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Wisdom of Fonts/Legendary Failures

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By Michael Miner

Wisdom of Fonts

Ron Reason belongs to a guild so small that even though he's the assistant managing editor in charge of redesigning the Sun-Times, he's simultaneously doing the same sort of work for the rival Tribune Company. Visit his Web site and you'll find him philosophizing, promoting himself, showing off his handiwork, recruiting staff, and saying what he thinks about the papers he works for.

Editor Nigel Wade brought him to the Sun-Times. And when the Sun-Times announced that two new editors--Michael Cooke and John Cruick-shank--would be taking over for Wade this month, Reason reacted publicly. "For the first time, I get to experience what many of my colleagues who have been here have gone through numerous times--changes in top newsroom leadership and the potential uncertainty it brings," he wrote in his on-line "diary." But he expected to see "eye to eye" with the new men. "These are strong advocates of visual journalism and great reporting in general," he went on. "They bring lots of strong traditional values to the table, but also new ideas and enthusiasm to help reinvent a newspaper, and staff, that needs a bit of a kick in the butt."

Does it? Reason went on, "(That's the exact challenge that brought me here last year, so forgive me if I feel a little bit like the cavalry has arrived.) Up to this point, a common lament in our newsroom was that it will never change."

Reason's diary at www.ronreason.com finds him fretting about much more than type fonts. Another day, Reason called the Sun-Times "the newsroom that time forgot." He reminisced about the environment he'd once encountered at the Saint Petersburg Times--"where writers, editors, and visual folk work together as equal partners"--and bluntly declared, "For a variety of reasons, this culture didn't exist at the Sun-Times."

Reason told me the other day that the question he'd ask himself is "Why would you come to one of the most challenged papers in the country?"

Is it?

"In some respects, it's one of the most challenged I've seen anywhere in the world," he said, "in terms of trying to figure out what they want to be and how to do what they want to do. The Boston paper was a much worse looking paper, but internally, the challenges here are much worse....I've generally described progress at the Sun-Times as ten steps forward and eight steps back."

Eight steps? He named one, and it was a dandy. He and his design team had been trying to spruce up the pullout Wednesday food section. They thought they were making headway. But a few weeks ago a "big corporate decision" was made to drop a half-page ad onto the front page. Look for it. It's classic Hollinger buck-snatching opportunism, and it made the food section hideous.

Before coming to the Sun-Times as a consultant in 1998, Reason created a new look for the Boston Herald. Like the Sun-Times, the Herald had been a Rupert Murdoch tabloid; in fact, Murdoch owned it until 1994. But because the Herald was always down-market and proud of it, Murdoch had less to change in Boston than in Chicago to make his acquisition comport with his grotesque theories of what lumpen America goes for in a tab. The new owners "wanted to assert they were different" from Murdoch, Reason told me, "but in terms of the physical look, there was no desire to make it into a mini-Boston Globe." The Herald's "gritty, streetwise feel" was something to hang on to.

The Sun-Times is a different case. Murdoch cursed it with his touch, and 14 years after he let go the curse has not been lifted. "I had someone in the advertising community ask the other day if the Sun-Times was still owned by Rupert Murdoch," Reason told me. He said he wants to translate the Herald's "provocative dramatic texture" to the Sun-Times. But the look of the paper must strongly assert what Chicago still hasn't clearly grasped--that the Australian has left the building.

"I'll say one thing about my experience with the Sun-Times," said Reason. "I know just about everybody who's anybody in newspaper design, and I know very few people who would have come to this paper--and I don't know anybody who would have stayed with the paper knowing what we've gone through. It's definitely an exercise in optimism and faith." When Reason arrived in 1998 he told himself, "This is chaos." He found "too many fonts, too many weird logos," and he discovered that "there was not one focused point in the paper's history where it knew what its design was." After getting to know the department heads, he concluded that he'd joined a paper beaten down by a succession of owners and editors and that a woebegone appearance was visual evidence of that beating. There'd been a redesign in 1983, but Murdoch took over in '84 and overnight changed everything. Then Murdoch sold the paper to a new owner, who overnight changed some things back, and then that owner was dumped by his investors, who eventually sold the paper to Hollinger. Helvetica, the preferred typeface, "had a dated feel, sort of a 70s feel." But Helvetica was a forgiving typeface, Reason explained--it didn't smear on the old presses the way more elegant faces would.

"Nigel, to his credit, from the moment he came in, was never satisfied with the design of the paper," Reason told me. And as the paper brings its new offset presses on-line, it's finally free to pick whatever fonts it pleases and to dress up.

We won't see the redesigned paper until late summer, but Reason and his design team have already been making piecemeal changes. "We got rid of a lot of ugly typefaces. We've cleared up the paper to where it's bland but not offensive."

Was it offensive?

"From an academic standpoint," Reason said.

Reason, who's 36, grew up in La Porte, Indiana, and went to Indiana University, where--he promptly notifies skeptical editors whose vineyards he invades--he majored in journalism, not fine arts, and trained as a reporter and editor. In fact, he did an internship as a copy editor on the national desk of the Washington Post. "It didn't light my fire from a creative standpoint."

When Wade found him, he was director of visual journalism at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. "One of the things that brought me here," Reason said, "is that I grew up an hour away, and to a certain extent this is the paper my folks still read. It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance to come back and make a splash."

But when Wade offered to put Reason on staff last year, he was halfway through a freelance redesign of the Tribune Company's Orlando Sentinel. Strangely, there was no problem. "It's a testament to the alleged detachment of the Tribune to its regional properties," said Reason, who visits Orlando every couple of months. "They have trod a little more lightly around me in terms of corporate strategy. It's an interesting position to be in, don't you think?"

Reason's new Sentinel is expected to hit Orlando's streets about the same time his new Sun-Times will. A little later, the Chicago Tribune will introduce its own redesign, which it's being very secretive about, though the paper's writers don't mind saying that narrower pages will leave them with less room to speak their piece.

Reason has taken a generous view of his opportunity to set the Sun-Times right. He doubts that his counterparts at the Tribune or anywhere else hold the kind of staff luncheons he's held to discuss leadership, or have decided, as he has, that "a great deal of the focus of my day-to-day and long-term goals is to be as forward-thinking and positive as possible." He adds, "The one thing I've learned is that a redesign is 10 percent fonts and 80 to 90 percent leadership in management."

True beauty is never skin-deep.

Legendary Failures

Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould weighs in this month on the Vietnam war. No, sorry, he doesn't. The recent flurry of reminiscences on the fall of Saigon distracted me. Gould's worthy concern is the tragedy of Bill Buckner. About Vietnam--I mean Buckner--Gould argues that human nature has clouded history. It's turned a lame first baseman who booted a ground ball into the agent of destiny who surrendered the 1986 World Series. We're still debating where to pin the blame for Vietnam, but everyone knows who blew it for the Boston Red Sox.

Having belabored Buckner's injustice on many a slow week at Hot Type, I thank Eugene Dillenburg of the Shedd Aquarium for alerting me to Gould's essay in the May issue of Natural History. To Gould, the Buckner travesty is a prime example of a "canonical legend"--history remembered in a certain way, facts be damned, because the human race requires a good story. An especially good story is one that adds a note of meaning to catastrophe. Whenever a kingdom's lost we really want to know it happened because a horse lost a nail.

The World Series loss that Buckner's fumble contributed to perpetuated a pattern of defeat that's explained away as the Curse of the Bambino. The Red Sox haven't won a World Series since their chuckleheaded owner sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1920 for money to invest in a Broadway show. Four times since 1920 the Red Sox have bowed in seven-game heartbreakers, and never did they come closer than '86, when they led the Mets three games to two and were two runs up with two outs and nobody on base in the bottom of the tenth inning of the sixth game. So certain of defeat that their scoreboard had already flashed "Congratulations Red Sox," the Mets tied the game on some cheap hits and a wild pitch, and when a ground ball bounced through Buckner's legs the winning run scored. The next night the Mets won game seven and the series.

These 14-year-old facts are simple, easily researched, and so recent they haven't actually been forgotten. Nevertheless, they're facts that narrators find it almost impossible to stick to. "I keep a growing file of false reports, all driven by requirements of the canonical story," Gould writes, "claiming that but for Buckner's legs, the Sox would have won the Series....This misconstruction appears promiscuously, both in hurried daily journalism and in rarefied books by the motley crew of poets and other assorted intellectuals who love to treat baseball as a metaphor for anything else of importance in human life or the history of the universe."

Though Gould himself has discussed evolution in terms of the disappearance of .400 hitters, baseball is no mere metaphor to him; it's a crucible of scientific principles. Poet Donald Hall is the sort of sentimental intellectual Gould has in mind, and Gould quotes from an essay Hall wrote two years ago to accompany a centennial edition of "Casey at the Bat."

Hall concluded: "Triumph's pleasures are intense but brief; failure remains with us forever, a mothering nurturing common humanity. With Casey we all strike out. Although Bill Buckner won a thousand games with his line drives and brilliant fielding, he will endure in our memories in the ninth inning of the sixth game of a World Series, one out to go, as the ball inexplicably, ineluctably, and eternally rolls between his legs."

One out to go till victory? Hell no, says Gould, one out to go till the 11th inning. He might also have objected to Hall's inane claim that Buckner, who played in 2,517 games in his career, aside from playoffs, won a thousand of them by himself. But Hall's not the only smart person here who can't stick to the facts. Recounting that sixth game in 1986, Gould tells Natural History readers that the Red Sox were three runs up when the roof fell in. The scientist himself can't resist making a good story better--he overstates the Red Sox collapse by a run.

Before Hall succumbs to mythmaking, he's dead-on: "Triumph's pleasures are intense but brief; failure remains with us forever." If you doubt this, you haven't been following the debate over flying the Confederate flag in South Carolina. You missed the connection between Serbian nationalism and a battle lost in 1389. Victory we're willing to accept for what it usually is--happy happenstance. But as Gould puts it, we force defeat "into the channels of canonical stories." That is, we turn it into folklore. Michael Jordan's most incredible accomplishment as a Bull brought a last-second victory as indelible as a last-second defeat. He accomplished this the only way he could, by retiring, thereby guaranteeing the collapse of a dynasty and the end of an era.

A blown World Series is effective, but nothing beats a lost war for turning an entire society to the task of asserting a canonical myth. As Gould might have said if he'd been writing on the subject, the spate of journalism recalling the fall of South Vietnam demonstrates anew how unwilling America is to remember those 12-some years of futility as anything less than full-blown national tragedy.

But Vietnam wasn't a seventh game, a sixth game, or even extra innings. As no one ever seems to acknowledge, it was a dubiously chosen, nondecisive battlefield of the cold war. The cold war ended in victory as overwhelming as World War II's, and everyone knows it; the facts are simple and easily researched and even more recent than the 1986 World Series. But they don't matter. If the Vietnam war can be redeemed only by being diminished, America isn't interested. Does even Bill Buckner still argue that he wasn't the Curse of the Bambino made flesh in 1986, that nothing he's done was really all that important?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mark Graham.

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