Facelifts May Not Prevent Sagging Circ

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

When The Bakersfield Californian launched a radical redesign of its look and content this year in March, it had an immediate payoff, boosting single-copy sales and cutting subscription stops dramatically. Watching from Portland, Mark Friesen, news designer at The Oregonian, suspected the Californian’s market honeymoon wouldn’t last, however.

It didn’t. Circulation fell back to familiar levels, and in the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) FAS-FAX, the 60,975-circulation Californian reported that its daily circ had dropped 2.9% from last year’s numbers, and Sunday was off 2%.

Friesen says, “It got me thinking, what impact does a redesign have?” It’s a vital question, as newspapers spend lavishly on makeovers, and expect ? naively or not ? positive results. So Friesen charted the circulations of 10 newspapers that underwent “high profile” redesigns over the last couple of years, pinpointing the date a paper’s redesign launched, and following the circulation trend to the latest FAS-FAX for the six months ended Sept. 30.

The result: 10 virtually identical charts, with small spikes right after the launch ? ending in drooping tails as circulation continued a downward trend.

Friesen doesn’t want to claim too much from this exercise. “I don’t know that this necessarily proves anything, and I certainly am not trying to make the point ?though maybe it looks like it ? that redesigns are bad for circulation.” But one thing’s for sure: It didn’t prove that makeovers are necessarily good for circulation.

The chart stirred up some surprise among designers across the country ? and a certain amount of soul-searching, too.

Newspaper designers are not miracle workers, argues acclaimed veteran Mario Garcia: “Design will not cure the maladies of poor content, or papers that have lost touch with their communities.” In his 37 years in design, Garcia adds, he’s often been summoned by those kinds of newspapers. He has a quick answer: “I have always said, ‘I don’t like to dress cadavers.'”

Newspapers often have high hopes for redesigns, but aren’t willing to do all the other things in the newsroom and beyond to make them work, according to Chicago-based designer Robb Montgomery, CEO of Visual Editors.com.

“I don’t think a lot of redesigns go far enough,” Montgomery says. Newspapers can get hung up on the look of a paper, but fail to make the content and workflow changes necessary to compete in an Internet information age. “It’s like they buy a guitar, but don’t want to take lessons,” he says, “and then they say, ‘Wow, it’s a great-looking guitar. How come it doesn’t make good music?'”

Californian President/CEO Richard Beene says the paper never believed that its redesign alone would boost circulation: “The things that are going to turn circulation around are so much more complicated than color palate and even story selection. The fact is, there are some really fundamental things happening with audience migration that all … traditional media, radio, television, newspapers have to deal with.”

Beene says he’d “absolutely” do the redesign again, even knowing how circulation turned out. One reason, says the redesign’s creator, Alan Jacobson, president and CEO of Norfolk, Va.-based BrassTacks Design, is that the makeover increased the paper’s revenue, especially in the new-look classified section.

“The other metric to judge a redesign on is revenue,” Jacobson argues. “It’s one that people don’t talk about much, but frankly, it’s the most important.”

Design captures a reader’s attention, Jacobson says, but “ultimately it’s about the content, it’s about the follow-through, and it’s about promotion ? and that’s where newspapers often drop the ball.”

Think of a newspaper redesign as plastic surgery, says Mario Garcia: “It can change your nose ? but not your personality.”

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