Maestro Made Simple

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Maestro Made Simple
What is a Maestro approach?

It may to help to start with what a Maestro approach is not. In “typical” newsrooms, a reporter may generate a story and turn it over to a page editor or designer who fits it into a layout and adds a graphic from a photographer who never once spoke to the reporter or designer except to find out the general topic being covered. This method has been putting out newspapers and magazines successfully for a long time, but that doesn’t make it the best way.

A Maestro approach, in contrast, starts with the “whole package” in mind and allows all team members – writers/reporters, photographers and designers – to work together to showcase the story in the most effective way possible.
Who is part of a Maestro team?

Configurations of a Maestro team can vary according to specific needs, but this works well for most staffs:

Maestro: Leads the group, facilitates communication, ensures progress, and helps others

Reporter: Conducts the interviews, writes the story, and communicates his focus to others

Photographer: Seeks to capture images that directly tell the reporter’s story visually

Designer: Packages all elements in such a manner as to facilitate story telling

All Members: Seek to answer all the reader’s questions during the process of story building
What does that all mean?

Well, take a look at the file called “powerball.jpeg” for a moment and let’s analyze its components.

First, the headline: “Lottery Fever” – implies urgency, speed, and frantic ticket-buyers
Now, the dominant: look at how both the cashier’s and customer’s hands are blurred as the worker makes change and how her whole body is flanked by scratch tickets – sure does lend itself visually to the verbal message of the headline. Seems like a photographer and a writer might have talked about this, doesn’t it?
Check out the rest of the design elements: black background with reverse type and bold lettering matches the tone of the piece – urgency and fervent purchases. Lottery balls offer a visual connection to the actual lottery while their seemingly random placement in the package adds a sense of chaos. Even small horizontal photos running up the right side contrast nicely with the vertical dominant.
And don’t miss the content of those little pics! The question at the top of that element asks, “What are the odds?” and each photo represents something that is more likely to happen to you than winning the lottery such as dying from a snake bite or being struck by lightning.
What’s the point here? Together a group of journalists with different strengths – words, images, and designing – all worked together to create a cohesive package where all the aspects of the package actually work together. That’s a maestro. There is no way the designer just happened to have those sidebar pic lying around when it came time to layout the page – the element was planned from the beginning, and those photos were chosen just for this element. There’s no way that photographer just happened to get a shot like that with the blur that showed such great motion by accident – it was planned from the beginning, too. The black, the bold type, even the lottery balls – all of it was planned from the start by word people, image people, and design people working together on a unified concept.
So how does it work, beginning to end?

1. Roles should be assigned or understood so that everyone knows who is responsible for what. By all means, change roles up from project to project to see who has particular skills in particular areas. On a large yearbook staff, a single student could rotate through all the roles in a deadline cycle, or a single student could serve in 2 different roles in 2 different groups at the same time.

2. Brainstorm a concept. Maybe some initial reporting has been done to see if a story exists and to find an angle. For our lottery story, the team probably knew the jackpot was 146 million that night and that a story was to be found here.
3. Think like a reader. I’ll say it again. Think like a reader. Each team member should pretend he/she was seeing the final product in print. Ask yourself, “What would I want to know or be interested in regarding this topic.” The answers to these questions guide the reporter in writing interview questions, planning an angle of coverage, and finding the details that make stories worth reading. For instance, what are the odds of winning that jackpot? How do those odds compare to, let’s say, getting struck by lightning? These questions also tell the photographer what kind of images he/she will need to capture – the snowman image, the snake, the bus, etc. These questions also guide the designer in making layout choices. How can I lay all this info out in such a way that the reader will want to engage the piece as a whole? It is in this process of thinking like a reader that a package starts to take shape in a way that will be meaningful to the audience.
4. Plan the “big picture.” This is the time to start making the words, the angles, the images, and the layout truly work together. This is when the headline might come to mind (Lottery Fever) and storytelling pictures get visualized (blurred hands that show the urgency implied by “Fever”) and color, font, graphic, and even hook paragraph choices start to fit together.
5. Once this planning is done, it’s time to really get to work. The reporter goes after the story, the photographer goes after those images, the designer starts mocking up the layout, and the maestro facilitates it all as the leader of the group. While everyone is working, the maestro is involved across the board making sure everyone is on the same page (metaphorically) on what concept the package is trying to communicate.
6. Depending on your time schedule, short meetings should take place along the way to ensure all team members are getting their jobs done. The photographer shows off his great dominant, the designer shows the great font and color scheme the package will use, the reporter highlights the great lead and great quotes, etc. The team makes sure they’re on track.
7. Wrap it up and seal the deal. Take all the elements you’ve worked so hard to plan and create, and put on the finishing touches. Now you’ve got a package that is strong visually as well as verbally and was created specifically with the audience in mind. It doesn’t get any better than that. Or does it?...
8. Look at what the team has created and ask if you’ve communicated the message you set out to communicate. Is there any way to make it stronger? This is the correction or critique stage of the maestro approach that can really set your package apart. Consider the lottery package again. What could be done to make the whole thing work together even better? You may try different ideas and hate them, but here are some suggestions I would offer.

-What would it look like if we used the red color from the fireworks image and applied a subtle gradient to the word “fever” in the headline so that it looked like the word itself were heating up from bottom to top?

-The designer intentionally organized the vertical sidebar elements with the most likely element on bottom and the least likely on top. When I see that and read the headline, I picture the outline of a thermometer around that whole sidebar element I’d place the bulb at the bottom with tick marks running up the side so that as you work your way up the element, the “temperature” reading is higher. It even works that a snow image is cold and at the bottom. I’d hand-sketch this thermometer to contrast the digital graphic look of the lottery balls.
-The lead of this story is great. It really draws me in because it makes this restaurant/ticket vending location seem like home. However, I lose the sense of urgency in the lead. I wonder if there would be a way to work in a sentence to show it. See the great line that simply says, “That kind of place.”? What if we inserted this in the next paragraph, “But on a day when the jackpot is nearly 150 million, there may not be time to call about the regulars who haven’t been in since Sunday.” Something simple like that could add that urgent feeling the lead lacks.
If you’ve got time to make it through step 8 a couple of times, do it! Keep the ideas that work, and reject those that do not. You never know until you try them.
That, in a nutshell, is the Maestro approach and how it can help take a typical package and turn it into something exceptional.

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