By: Mark Fitzgerald
Readers often accuse their local daily of being out of step with their community, but it’s rare to hear a newspaper agree wholeheartedly. The Bakersfield Californian, though, came to that conclusion a while ago.
“This community is a red spot in a blue state ? really, really conservative ? and we thought maybe we were a little out of touch,” says Californian President/CEO Richard Beene. “We’re riding the baby boomers,” he notes, and not appealing to the city’s many longtime Hispanic residents or newcomers attracted to the area’s relatively low housing costs.
So how did the Californian decide to appeal to “really, really conservative” Bakersfield?
With a really, really radical redesign. The kind that’s increasingly transforming the look of newspapers in Latin America, Asia, and Europe, but not here. Beene and Executive Editor Mike Jenner gave Alan Jacobson of Brass Tacks Design one instruction: No incremental change. To appeal to a community full of people who, as politicians like to say, play by the rules, the Californian threw out the design rule book.
Now the Californian’s nameplate butts into a photo almost every day. Bold shades of blue, yellow, and green form an upside-down “L” at the top of the front page. The first thing readers see on the classifieds section front is a big picture in the upper corner ? type from the classifieds nameplate cutting into it, of course ? of something for sale, maybe someone’s car or boat. The redesign takes maximum advantage of the newspaper’s expertise in producing consistently great color.
In addition, the Californian’s stories are now shorter, and its headlines aren’t cute; they cut to the chase. “It’s a we-don’t-waste-your-time approach,” says Jenner. The paper also hired a conservative columnist. When beats were redrawn around new themes, one reporter was assigned “faith and values.”
To be sure, the family-owned Californian’s editorial policy still raises blood pressures all around town. “We’re not going Fox News here, no slanting,” Jenner says, but the hot-button topics for conservatives are more likely to appear on Page One.
The results of the redesign were heartening, to a point. “I wish I could say it shot circulation through the roof,” Beene admits. At first, it did, with single-copy sales rising as much as 13% in the first weeks after the March 1 launch. Subscription stops plunged by 20%. But then the momentum eased, and circulation leveled out.
The good news for the long term is that conservative Bakersfield isn’t put off by a newspaper look you’re more likely to see in Mexico City or Stockholm or Bangkok. Almost no one (just 16 people) canceled subscriptions because of the redesign. “It’s not a silver bullet,” Jenner says, “but this is a growing market, and I think we’ll see the gains.”