Rails & Refers: Do New Design Rules Really Work?

By: Mark Fitzgerald & Jennifer Saba

Starting in the 1980s, largely thanks to USA Today, newspapers across the country came to embrace color, large photos and art, bullet points, charts, and ever-briefer stories. These days it’s hard to pick up a paper without one or all of those zippy elements. Now the ones not conforming ? no breakout boxes? ? are more noticeable. “The scales have tipped,” says Scott Goldman, vice president of the Society of News Design and assistant managing editor for visuals at The Indianapolis Star.

Goldman should know: Lists, guides, and shorter stories led the conversion of “Carmel A.M.,” a weekly broadsheet section in the Star ? targeted at Indy suburb Carmel ? into a 32-page tabloid (renamed “The Carmel Star”) that now runs four times a week. “It has a lot of color, it’s very interactive, there are lots of photos of people in the community, lots of references to online stories driving readers from the print product to the Web site and back again,” he says.

It’s too early to tell if the zoned “Carmel Star” has any legs; when Goldman spoke to E&P, it had only been around for a week. But he says that the newspaper will probably launch more such tabs.

The switch to brighter colors and tighter content happened in part due to the Readership Institute at Northwestern University, which in 2001 introduced eight key imperatives to grow audience ? including making the newspaper easier to read. Even before then, newspapers were rolling out punchy, splashy redesigns in hopes of netting more readers or just keeping current ones.

Yet circulation and readership continued to fall, and in some cases, plunge. Which begs the questions: Are newspapers pushing design and lighter content too far? Do readers really crave bold graphics, endless “rails” and rapid-fire stories? Or is the problem that redesigns are still too timid?

“I would say that newspapers are in the position of too little, too late,” says Monica Moses, executive director of product innovation at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, who led that paper’s redesign in October 2005. “We may be getting religion now, but [newspapers’] image is pretty conventional and tied to the past.”

But some reporters maintain that turning newspaper pages into Web-like facsimiles filled with sketchy content is exactly the wrong way to go if you want to save print.

Alan Jacobson, president and CEO of Brass Tacks Design, agrees there’s no easy fix or shortcut. Most newspapers, he says, make changes half-heartedly. It’s not the Readership’s directives or eye-catching designs that are off-kilter, but rather the newspapers that institute them. “I don’t know of any paper that has done all eight [Readership recommendations] to the requisite amount,” he says. “What they say is, ‘We are doing the best that we can,’ or ‘We’ve done some of it.’ But you have to do it all. Research supports this will make a difference.”

In Jacobson’s eyes, the mandates work only if a newspaper goes all the way. “Nobody is pushing far enough,” he contends. “It’s not that the ideas are bad.”

With today’s incredible shrinking newshole, there’s little choice but to make stories shorter ? but why doesn’t anyone say there should be smaller graphics? “I think they have to be more visual, they can’t reduce the size of their type anymore,” says Walter Bernard, a partner at WBMG Partnerships in New York. He says that in some cases, papers are losing 20% of their newshole.

But Moses recalls that when the Star Tribune went through a redesign they actually dialed back some elements, becoming much more strict on when to use logos and labels. The paper even did something considered unorthodox: The headlines became smaller. Following the redesign, some 600 readers contacted the paper about how unhappy they were about the overall change. Considering that the paper’s daily circulation is about 360,000, that’s roughly 0.1% of its readers. Not even a blip. “People who are are pretty die-hard devotees of newspapers think there needs to be a certain sense of gravitas and timelessness,” Moses says, “and those people are very vocal.”

If a paper has its eyes toward the Bill Clinton age bracket ? like the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which plans to keep the boomer demo in mind when the paper goes through a redesign in 2007 ? should it buck the “brite and lite” trends? Bernard replies, “Boomers are more educated, more experienced, and more curious ? and they still appreciate print.”

Some papers are striving to simply do more with less; radical redesigns need not be extensive to have impact. A case in point is the Gaston Gazette in Gastonia, N.C., which gave its front page an extreme makeover while pretty much preserving the feel of the rest of the paper.

For nearly a year, the front page above the fold of the 29,018-circulation daily has been devoted to a single local, or localized, story with a bold graphic element, while the entire bottom half of the page is turned over to what Editor John Pea calls “refers on steroids” ? summaries of the day’s most important news: “If this is all you have time to read today, this will get you by.” Pea says he knew it was working the first time he saw a driver stopped in traffic, reading the bottom half of the Gazette.

Yet the paper, unlike others, kept an open mind about carrying it too far. When the newspaper developed a prototype extending the all-refer concept to section fronts, focus groups roundly rejected the idea. “They like it for the front page,” says Pea, “but not on the section fronts.”

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