Ever since we began using computers to handle news -- which is probably a lot longer than you think -- there has been a notion of automating the processes of laying out pages. Long before InDesign, long before Quark, long before Pagemaker there were attempts to apply algorithms to news, to sort and arrange and place items on pages without humans driving every detail of the process.
Some of them were pretty naive. Somewhere in a dusty corner of my memory, probably from the late 1970s or early 1980s, is the voice of an indignant editor reacting to some computer geek's assumption that longer stories were more important than short ones, so story length could be used to determine layouts.
News judgment is far more complex than that, of course. But let's be honest: It's not infinitely complex, and any news editor knows that there are predictable patterns that handle most page layout.
On the Web, we've embraced algorithmic layout from the earliest days. We use templates. We flow content into a limited number of highly formatted containers. We're so automated that the very possibility of overriding standard designs becomes a revolutionary act.
As print continues to decline (and make no mistake: it will), you're going to see a collision between these two worlds.
Print designers want total control over arbitrary layout. The makers of tools for print designers -- especially Adobe -- will be trying to cram their toolkit into digital bottles. Adobe's plan for the iPad was to use InDesign for page layout, generating Flash components that would be compiled into a downloadable app. Now that Apple has killed Flash on the iPad, magazine designers are making iPad "applications" that are really collections of giant JPG files generated by print tools.
Image files! No wonder the apps are so huge. It's like a flashback to the mid-1990s, when the New York Times homepage on the Web was one big GIF file.
Here's my prediction: Algorithmic layout is going to win. The economics are brutal and they will decide.
We already have Gannett moving its newspaper layout work to central "Production Centers" -- hospices for print. My friends in the visual journalism community hate hate hate this. I understand why. I laid out newspaper pages for years. Decoupling product construction from reporting and editing the news is not something to celebrate. But I also understand the economic drivers behind it.
The entities formerly known as newsrooms -- Gannett calls them "Information Centers" -- will oddly enough be more closely coupled to their websites than their print products. Their world will be inverted. They will be paying more attention to metadata -- classification, tagging, geocoding, the elements of the semantic Web.
When you do this right, you create the conditions necessary for efficient algorithmic construction of a broad set of products tailored for specific situations. Web pages. Apps for the iPad. Mobile services. Microzoned products, defined by geography or interest or the user's current status, delivered via electronic or even print processes, but "finished" with fairly little human involvement in the "pages" that are consumed.
None of this suggests that visual journalists aren't important, or that design isn't part of storytelling. But we need to be much more judicious about where and how we expend these resources. As I've often said, a well-designed system allows the human override of default behaviors, but does not require human intervention. Focus your design energies where they will pay off. That's the best outcome we can hope to see from the collision of these approaches.