In a state known for its wide-open spaces, Montana newsrooms are wrestling with a new kind of distance challenge. Most major publishing companies have created regional design centers, or “hubs,” to cut costs and streamline work in the face of digitalization. They moved community news designers out of newsrooms into other offices or even other states, often isolating them physically from the reporters and editors they work with and the communities they serve.
Across Montana, newsrooms have found different ways to adapt.
The Great Falls Tribune has been designed over 1,200 miles away, in Phoenix, since 2012. The move has added a level of complexity to interactions between designers and editors.
“Communication is one area that can be a struggle, especially if the designers, who typically work evenings, have questions for reporters, who typically work days,” Tiffany Aldinger, a night content coach for the paper, wrote in an email. “This was also a problem when designers worked in Great Falls, but it’s compounded a bit because of the distance.”
The Tribune dealt with the danger of disconnect by relocating some of its own designers to Phoenix, among them Také Uda, a nationally recognized, award-winning member of the team. “He is deeply familiar with Great Falls and Montana, and that helped immensely,” Aldinger said. “He is able to catch mistakes that we make locally and has saved us many times.”
In her view, design consolidation has allowed the newsroom to focus on being digital first and creating content for its website, while the design team has stayed in close touch from afar.
“The designers will tease us about our winters, and we will do the same with their summers,” Aldinger said. “Both sides keep up on the news of the day. We worry for them with a serial killer on the loose in Phoenix, and I’ve had a designer tell me how excited she was when she heard a radio broadcast about Going-to-the-Sun Road.”
Lee Enterprises used a different strategy when it switched to regional design centers in 2014, a decision that affected its papers in Missoula, Helena and Butte. At the Missoulian, many designers were laid off rather than relocated to the hub in Munster, Indiana. In the meantime, designers at the regional center created sets of page templates for each paper, which news editors now choose from to assign stories to.
A former designer at the Munster hub, Jillian Larson worked on the Missoulian, the Montana Standard and the Independent Record, as well as on papers circulated in New York, Florida, Illinois, Indiana and California. She said there was a lot of variance among the papers in both design style and what was important to them. “You get used to how a paper flows, and then you’d get switched papers to cover someone’s shifts, and you don’t know their styles.”
To address those issues, each paper had a stylebook that designers in the center could refer to.
At the Missoulian, then-Assistant News Editor Ashley Klein collaborated closely with designers in Munster to put out the paper. One of the challenges, she said, is choosing how to prioritize presentation if no one on the design team knows the community a specific paper serves.
“I think there was a bit of awe for designers when you have this big, grandiose photo of a mountain range,” Klein said. “But for us, you don’t need to play the photo so big because [we] see that every day.”
On the upside, Klein thinks the move has streamlined the process. “There’s a little less time for the nitpicking over certain things that people don’t like,” she said.
The Bozeman Daily Chronicle experienced design consolidation from a different perspective. It has hosted the design hub for Pioneer Newspapers since 2015. Designers are still in house, sitting in the same newsroom as reporters and editors, but they are now responsible for a growing number of other papers in the Northwest — in Montana, Washington, Oregon, Utah and Idaho. Nine designers, including a few who moved to Bozeman when their papers switched over, are designing for six dailies and a few weeklies.
Some redesign work was initiated as part of the switch, mostly changing fonts to streamline the process of working with so many different papers, said Nicholas Ehli, managing editor of the Chronicle.
“We didn’t want them to be cookie cutters, but we didn’t want designers to have to scratch their heads and say, ‘What paper am I working on tonight?’”
Though he now has to share his best designers with other papers, Ehli said design across the chain has improved, and he thinks Pioneer would say the move has been financially successful.
“I think most of the papers that we’ve added would say, as far as the look of the paper, they’re pleased,” he said. “I’m not sure that we’ve missed a deadline yet, and I think for some of our papers that’s been more of an issue before we took them on.”
Back when Gannett first announced it would consolidate design for most of its 81 newspapers into design hubs in five cities, the decision sparked an outcry among designers.
Six years later, Larson said she thinks only people within the industry are aware of the challenges design centers present, but that consolidation could be a sign of reduced local funding.
“I don’t think the general public knows or really cares, but if you are at all a part of printing or publishing, it does put a damper on thinking about the future.”