I've always had a lot of interest in the visual components of journalism and consider myself a decent amateur photographer. I'm actually kind of anal about it. A messy design really impedes my enjoyment of fine journalism. When my own published writing has suffered under poor design, I have felt unreasonably disappointed. In my routine digestion of news, I have to make a real effort to overlook poor design and recognize otherwise good work.
I was looking at something on Time.com today and thought about this, because Time was one of the early influencers of my news-design sensibilities, along with National Geographic. Both magazines were ubiquitous in our household when I was a kid in the 1960s and 1970s, and I learned a lot by watching how their designs evolved. I also learned a lot from Life's photography and from watching our Michigan newspapers migrate from vertical to horizontal modules in their layouts. But the visual presentation in Time and NG always seemed to be eons ahead of everybody else's.
I think it was around 1970 when Time began using gray or colored bars across the top of pages to denote the various departments. They used a sans-serif typeface, in all caps, reversed. That was quite revolutionary and modern. I liked it.
I also recall watching over a period of years as National Geographic gradually shed the ornamental frame on the cover that used to reside inside the iconic yellow box, by letting parts of the photo cover it up. Eventually, it was gone. Similarly, at some point Time began letting objects and people in the cover photo obscure the logo. It seems kind of cheesy now, but at the time it was pretty bold: We're fucking Time magazine, and you don't even need to see the logotype to know this. (Odd things for a child to be noticing, I suppose.)
It turns out that both have been standard-bearers ever since, in print and on the Web, when it comes to using design to convey meaning and make a statement.
Typography: Two fonts, one serif and one sans-serif, are all you need. The hierarchy of sizes and use of italic are kept to a minimum.
Color: Geez, does it get any more iconic than red or yellow? Each publication uses its main palette color to denote navigational elements. Deviations from the main brand color reside only in content such as photos and info graphics.
White space: More is better. It's easier to scan a page, and the things you put on it have more impact. I don't know about you, but I have an awful time finding what I need when I visit certain sports Web sites.
Words and their meaning: None of this helps if the language sucks. Which means if you aren't multitalented, you need to work closely with someone with complementary skill. A great design with nothing to say, or poetry without worthy visual treatment, has half the impact that it could.