By: Joe Nicholson
effort to redesign L.A. Times
In a breathtaking plan to redesign
the Los Angeles Times from first
page to last, Times Mirror Co. chairman and CEO Mark H. Willes is pulling out all the stops, creating an 80-member task force and hiring three outside consulting firms, including world-famous newspaper remake artist Roger Black.
Black, who has created new looks for newspapers such as The New York Times, The (Baltimore) Sun, and the San Francisco Examiner, tells Editor & Publisher: “I want to make it much clearer, much more transparent, much easier to navigate. ? It’s certainly the biggest newspaper project I’ve ever tackled.”
The task Willes and Black and a cast of many are undertaking sounds like the mother of all newspaper redesigns.
“It will be front to back,” says John Arthur, the Times’ managing editor-regional editions and head of the 80-
member task force.
The new Times is expected to arrive next spring with one big bang.
“We’re not thinking about it as a gradual rollout, but rather as a launch,” says Mike Lange, the paper’s director of communications.
That means agreement must be reached within a few months to provide time for the redesign implementation, which may begin in January.
“Roger Black is the premier newspaper and magazine designer in the world probably,” says task force chief Arthur. “If we decide to go with a certain look from Roger Black, we need to make some key decisions by this fall.”
Black, who is based in New York, says he has 100 clients around the world, including 10 newspapers.
Arthur praises John Lindsay, the newspaper’s managing editor-features/design, for encouraging a redesign last year and for his efforts ? along with those of Kathryn M. Downing, publisher, president, and CEO of the newspaper ? to bring in Black, 50. He calls Lindsay the paper’s “principal architect of the redesign.”
Lindsay’s efforts to get agreement on doing a redesign were “put on hold” last year when the paper became absorbed with a decision to switch to a 50-inch web, says Arthur. Ultimately, the switch to narrower pages gave advertisements and editorial material an unsatisfactory appearance, adding to the impetus for a redesign.
“When the paper decided to go to this narrow newsprint, that gave the redesign a new sense of urgency,” says Arthur, 51. “At the moment, as we convert our presses, we are simply shrinking the image to fit it on the smaller page size.”
Lindsay, 49, says he wanted to sign up Black because “Roger is maybe the preeminent publication redesigner in the world. He’s redesigned most everything.” Along with an array of other publications around the world, Black has redesigned Reader’s Digest and is currently engaged in redesigning The National Enquirer.
Moreover, Lindsay points out that Black “had a history with Times Mirror.” He refers to Black’s redesign of Times Mirror’s Sun, saying “he was a known quantity in the company.”
Over the years, Black has been involved with magazine and Web design as well as newspaper design, says Lindsay, adding, “I also know he’s very much an innovative thinker; he’s not restrained by history or convention.”
The massive resources being poured into the redesign are aimed at creating a big circulation boost. “We expect the redesign to help increase circulation,” says Lange. “Why else would you do it?”
Arthur says the newspaper’s executives are talking about adding as many as 500,000 to a million new readers.
“A half-million [in added circulation] and a million [in added circulation] have been tossed around,” says Arthur. “It’s a pretty ambitious goal.” Arthur says the goal is long-term, “probably” over several years. But he adds, “That remains a goal.”
Seeking a half-million additional readers “forces you to think big,” says Times spokesman Lange.
Arthur’s redesign task force encompasses seven “teams:” editorial, display advertising, classified advertising, operations, systems, marketing, and circulation. All 80 members have not met together in recent weeks, but the “team” leader meet with Arthur every Tuesday.
In addition, the editorial team is broken up into two “subteams:” redesign and content.
Of the entire cast, Lindsay says, “It’s a huge number.” He adds, “I think it will get bigger. I think people will cycle in and cycle out. ? It will get bigger as you implement [the redesign]. It will include every person in the newspaper.” The effort “will probably be the most vast” project with which Lindsay has been involved during his 28 years in the business, he says. “You cannot do a project this huge without including that number of people,” he explains.
Lindsay says the end result is expected to be “a more contemporary, a more accessible and a more consistent newspaper that will better showcase the content.”
“It’s a large project that involves all parts of the company,” says Arthur.
Actually, it involves more than company staffers. To join in the redesign effort, the Times has signed contracts with three outside consulting firms, including Roger Black Consulting, where Black already has eight of his staffers working on the redesign and says he plans to add another dozen of his employees to the project.
Black recognizes the sensitivity of the project, especially any meddling with the Front Page: “The Front Page is in many ways the visual brand of a newspaper. To tamper with that, you have to have something immediately better or [something that] says, ‘Los Angeles Times.'”
Black’s new look for the paper will have to be approved by Arthur’s task force and then get a green light from Downing, says Black. Finally, Willes will have to sign off on it.
Also retained are San Francisco-based Landor Associates, which specializes in the branding and marketing aspects of design, and La Jolla, Calif.-based Nissan Design International Inc., whose work extends beyond car design to a wide application of design ideas.
Arthur says “it might seem odd for a group known for their design work in automobiles to be consulting with a newspaper.” But he says he has been very impressed with the ideas of Nissan officials. A recent meeting with Nissan officials, he says, “was very encouraging, provocative and interesting.” Nissan officials are “very interested in how people read the paper physically: how their attention jumps from one story to another or one section to another or one page to another.”
Asked if the redesign will cost millions of dollars, Arthur says, “I suppose [it will] if you measured everybody’s time.”
So far, the staff has not chafed at the outside consultants who are working on a reinvention of what has long been considered one of the world’s great newspapers. “To date, we’ve avoided those problems,” says Arthur.
Whether Black’s master plan might provoke staff revolt is a thought Arthur doesn’t want to consider. “I don’t want to go there,” he says. “I don’t want to speculate on what might happen. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.
“Roger Black commands such respect in the industry that I believe those issues would be minimized,” says Arthur, who adds that Black “doesn’t have carte blanche to redesign the paper, but we’re very interested in what he has to say,”
The redesign effort is being supported by extensive reader research. “The demographics of the readers are more detailed than I have ever seen at the beginning of a redesign project,” says Black, who recently redesigned newspapers in Stockholm, Sweden; Zurich, Switzerland; and Singapore.
The Times operates “a very sophisticated readership survey program that is under way year-round,” says Arthur. “We do continuous tracking research. We’re tracking it almost daily: readership by all categories, age, demographics, location. We track section readership. We poll them, and we ask them what they like and don’t like about the section.”
Black describes an all-day series
of meetings with Willes and newspaper staffers during which they plotted ways to make a better paper.
The June 16 conference began at 9:30 a.m., broke for a luncheon meeting, and then continued until past 4 p.m.
Willes “listened, and he made lucid and clear observations,” says Black, the former director of editorial art at The New York Times. “He’s there to learn, too. ? It’s not like he’s sitting in a big chair giving orders.”
Not all of the newspaper’s staffers are aware of what is going on. “Some are, and some aren’t,” says Lindsay. “A lot
of them are wondering what’s going on.”
Black says skeptical news coverage of Willes’ ambitious goals is not the newspaper’s most difficult pressure: “I don’t think that’s nearly as great a pressure as the goal that has been [made] to increase circulation tremendously ? that’s enormous pressure.”
Black says he neither saw nor heard any indication of doubt or fear of failure during “two long sessions with Mark” and Willes’ team. “That’s the farthest from the impression I have. If anything, he is pushing stronger than he ever did.” He describes Willes’ philosophy as “you have to constantly upgrade or you appear to decline.”
Asked whether Willes will remain in power long enough to see success, Black says, “That’s something CEOs always have to think about, but I don’t have to think about.” Black says Willes’ team seems unified on the “central proposition of their enterprise,” a preliminary step to redesign.
Emphasizing that he was describing the concept as an outsider, Black says: “There are two basic aspects. One is the quality of the journalistic writing. What they call literary journalism. ? The other thing is that the Los Angeles Times is a fundamental part of the fabric of Los Angeles, it’s part of its history, it’s completely interwoven with the culture.”
Black admires Willes: “Not everybody has the guts to do [what Willes is undertaking]. It’s flying against the conventional wisdom. ? Here’s a publisher who is not going to give up, and I enjoy that. I applaud that.”
“Most publishers think they are like managers of passenger railroads in the 1950s,” says Black. “This [Times] is a very important battleground. It’s a question of whether newspapers go forward and continue to build as a valid industry in the next century or whether they are a 20th-century phenomenon, and it’s over.”
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