‘Express-News’ Redesign ‘Zippers’ Up a Tab-in-a-Broadsheet

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

For years, the San Antonio (Texas) Express-News resisted one of the most common front-page design elements among American broadsheets today — the rail.

With its radical new front-page redesign, however, the Express-News girds both sides of the page with a rail in a combination it calls “zippers.”

And while the paper now loves rails twice as much, it has dismantled another design feature beloved of American broadsheets, the skyboxes that choo-choo above the flag like so many boxcars.

Instead, the space above the fold has become a tabloid inside a broadsheet, with everything that implies for showcasing one big story.

“Really the zipper structure kind of led us to this tab inside a broadsheet,” Express-News Design Director Dean Lockwood said. “I wasn’t really expecting this, it just sort of happened.”

And that’s a good thing, he adds, because it doesn’t let reporters, editors and designers get away with their typical front-page compromises. “We’ve got all these things: the ‘strip,’ the ‘off-lead,’ the story poking above the fold, the ‘muted’ lead, those two-column stories that tell (readers) well, this is the lead story, but we don’t think it’s all that great. Once we started with zippers, you couldn’t carve up the page as you would with a traditional broadsheet — it just wouldn’t work.”

Like a lot of newspapers — heck, like every metro — the Express-News has been pushing its good stuff to the top of the page to push single-copy sales, so the tab-like space framed by the zippers was a good place to push one good story.

“You take a strong, hopefully local story, get it up to the top — and sell it strong,” Lockwood said. That best story is not necessarily the most important hard-news story in the grand scheme of things, he added.

The paper has come to realize that “above-the-fold” doesn’t have much impact if four stories are contending for big-story status. And the tab format means the paper is not so dependent on a striking photo to package a story.

Also helping in that way is the recent addition of Adrian Alvarez, the Mexican designer who cut his teeth at the beautiful Monterey newspaper El Norte, and most recently helped design the Rumbo tabloids. “Coming from Mexican newspapers, he’s fearless about using colors” to package stories, Lockwood said.

A detailed explanation (PDF) of how the newsroom should implement the new front-page design can be downloaded by clicking here. For the Express-News’ explanation of the redesign to readers, click here.

The front-page redesign, which launched March 27, is the first concrete change to come from the newspaper’s “reimagination team” that has marching orders from Editor Bob Rivard to put all assumptions about newspapers aside, and ponder what they would look like if they were created from scratch right now.

The front page — especially the zippers element — is also further evidence of how the Web is influencing newspaper design. “I think more people are more accustomed, and maybe more expecting, to have a menu of news,” Lockwood said.

With the new design, the left rail is devoted to hard news with a mix of briefs from local, national and international events.

The right side is called “In The Know,” and tends to soft news. But in addition to promoting features inside or serving as a home for the “Hey, Martha” sort of odd story, the right rail is the designers utility player. It’s a place for sports scores as needed or, in what is turning out to be an unending construction season on San Antonio roads, a guide to getting around lane and ramp closings.

A circulation-boosting promotion the paper is doing with the San Antonio Spurs basketball team occupies some of the initial space in the right rail.

Below the fold, the paper retains much of its traditional look. Lockwood says it’s deliberately a calmer, less in-your-face place.

“You have to worry about what we call the junk factor, how much junk is piling up on the page,” he said.

While only 1A was redesigned, the new look necessarily impacted page 2A, which was where the newspaper’s digest and table of contents lived. That page, now called “Bits & Pieces,” includes the kind of breaking people or celebrity news that often didn’t make it into the feature section, which were printed much earlier. The page also includes lists such as current product recalls.

While it’s had a radical makeover, the front page hasn’t set off alarms among readers, Lockwood said. “We’ve had maybe 150 forms of feedback, in calls or e-mail or other forms, which is pretty low for (changing) anything,” he said.

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