Tribune redesign: One reader’s view

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[Chicago] There are reasons it can be silly to comment on or especially, “review” the redesign work of others. First, on launch day one may have no access to the physical copy of the newspaper, and I think it’s sort of pointless to assess a new design  (especially organization/navigation) without holding it in your hands – come on, you miss out on 90% of the experience, the inside pages. Second, if you’re not part of the target market of that newspaper, how do you know if they are serving their readers with the thing that really matters – relevant local content? How to know whether it’s improved? (Forget the aesthetics – let others bicker over whether a nameplate should be reversed in blue, or be stacked or unstacked , or if the font should be sans or serif – readers don’t really care about that stuff and it has no impact over readership, circulation and advertising.) Finally, how does one know the real challenges the design team faced? What ended up on the cutting room floor? What good intentions were set aside due to printing press limitations or other concerns?

But with our biggest local paper here in Chicago this morning launching its biggest redesign (ever?), I feel like sharing some random comments – from a reader’s perspective. Hey, I live here, it’s my paper, right? Or it could be, in its new iteration? I hope these comments (as with other resources on this site) might aid others going through redesigns to view their own efforts more objectively.

Though many of the new design touches are nice, I’d never buy a paper just for that, and won’t dwell much on that here. Regarding content and packaging, there’s a lot to admire in this revamp – done quickly and in-house – especially in the paper’s biggest change, it’s bold first section. First, a quick confession: I haven’t regularly read the physical Trib in ages. (I check it out online, and regularly read the paper’s free daily Red Eye – traditionalists, bitch if you want, Red Eye knows what it is, usually does that extremely well, by most accounts has been a huge hit in the city, and has influenced the huge free-paper niche of  news publishing in America, if not the world. Get off your high horses.)

Why not read the mother ship? I can cite the distraction of my New York Times, or the lure of online, but the lack of local news has been my real concern. (Living in the city for 10 years, even in the shadow of TribCo’s Wrigley Field, I kind of expected more.) It’s tough to try to be all things to all people in a large circulation area like this. But when the old Trib marketing campaign asked “What’s in it for you?”, I always thought, not much, at least in terms of civic coverage that mattered to me. (And let us hope that this vague, uncompelling come-on can now rest in peace.) Red Eye, by contrast, does a terrific job covering culture, commerce and commentary in my ‘hood. Perhaps its mission gave the mother ship license to pursue loftier goals? Let’s worry no more about that. Today being A Whole New Day, I bought the paper. Here are some thoughts.

CONTENT, PACKAGING, NAVIGATION AND ORGANIZATION

OK, what stands out in today’s revamped Tribune?

  • A front-page “Tribune watchdog” report that says yes, The Tower’s still looking out for Chicago (or greater Chicagoland if you prefer). Though it’s an in-depth report (huge presence on front and a full page inside) that I probably won’t have time to fully  process, the Trib team gives me some quick visual clues that today’s paper is for ME. (What any reader wants, right?) There’s a photo showing a poisonous smokestack just a few blocks outside my office window in gritty Pilsen, and a smart, short sidebar inside on the community’s crusade for answers. On the north side of town, another polluter in Lincoln Park, not too far from my house, is referenced high up in paragraph four, as well as in a clear infographic inside. Great glance boxes in this package tell readers how to get involved (this stuff was regularly neglected in Grandma’s Trib), and plug an online tool where I can search hundreds of additional polluters nearby.
  • New Tribune Day One The Trib formula requiring five (or six) traditional stories starting on Page One appears dead. RIP. The old shepherds of Grandma Trib would faint at the sight of this 3-story front, with its bold sans-serif lead head and full-width photo and no dispatch from Elbonia. (Some might even decry today’s paper as a 2-story front, if you don’t count the “promo-only” treatment of the market bailout built into the nameplate.) Here’s hoping such moves inspire ongoing questioning of old newspaper formulas that may have outlived their day.
  • In any market, a punchier front page needs extra reinforcement from meaty inside pages. Despite concerns over an announced 50/50 ad-edit ratio, today’s edition overall didn’t appear overly pinched. (Same cannot be said for a random weekday copy of a Tribune paper in another state I recently picked up, which struck me a few months into its redesign as shockingly anorexic.) Here in Chicago, News Focus and Nation/World inside pages seemed info-riffic, and visually much improved over Grandma’s Trib. Maybe extra ads were sold for the launch  edition, but I hope future editions will feel at least as substantial.
  • Tons of good marketing references are pulled out in story packages, promoting Trib blogs and other online resources, as well as summaries of complex stories. That said, a 23-paragraph story about India’s nuclear program feels long, like it’s serving old Trib readers but not the new (let’s say, readers who need the option of breezing through important topics but still want to feel informed). Today, I’m that breezy reader, but I want a little context quickly – what’s the deal, who wins/who loses, what really happens next, why the heck should I care? I suspect we’ll see more graphic pullouts in coming days as the Trib team gets even more into its groove.
  • One oddity: admirable to remind readers of the online Trib’s 24-hour commitment to the news, but a front-page story on a cop killing brags at daybreak: “This story has been updated more than 10 times already” on the web. Really? How’d they know this at deadline for the print edition? (This also sort of bolsters the argument for going and staying online for my local news.)
  • Modern, magazine-ish packaging techniques give a lively contemporary feel to parts of the paper, even news pages (such as the Page 6 story on “overscheduled kids”). Yes, such touches evoke Red Eye, and this isn’t always a bad thing, and show the Trib catching up with major metros around the world. However, a half-page roundup of nation/world briefs, keyed to a large map (which I don’t really need but hey, someone might), needs small headlines or boldface key words to supplement the bold country names – this new package makes me work hard and is not really very scannable.
  • A staff column and photo about an Alaskan museum in New York City? If this were in Chicago, maybe, but Soho? “News features” may have their place, and not all stories will appeal to all people, but this felt out of place in the New Trib.
  • Perhaps the most relevant comment I can offer on this rethinking, as a reader: the paper’s claims of being better organized and quicker to process seem to fall a bit short today. Some of the re-sectioning just did not feel logical, I suspect due to limitations of the printing presses. But given that it’s a keystone of marketing the new paper, it’s worth addressing. After a strong first section, local news is spilled over into a second section, with a  wimpy front presence. (A routine presentation of the “Getting Around” column, which would have been fine as an inside page, made me wonder if I had found the transportation section or something.) This orphaned section has strong stuff inside, including a surprising six pages of Business news, that ends up feeling short-changed by a weak front. Calling this offshoot “Section 1” doesn’t help; nor could I quite figure out how Sports was “Section 7” (where oddly, a Sox wraparound means the paper’s very strong sports section, and bold new logo, is relegated to an inside, black and white page). A full page of display jobs ads appears in the middle of sports, and not in Classifieds (I’m guessing because of the press configuration?).
  •  Finally, while lots of the typography seems improved, some of the type became or remains horrifically small, and reminds me of why I hate reading news on paper. Comics (sigh), city temps in an otherwise very nice weather package, a Classified advertorial with microscopic infographic, paid death notices – all a chore to read. (Classified line ads are also microscopic, and indexing and navigation of the section makes me wonder if it was addressed at all in the revamp.) I know space is limited, but …

Nitpicks aside, this is overall a very strong effort by a talented in-house team that surely worked hard to counter entrenched conservative views on newspaper presentation. (I’m thinking a few examples may fit nicely into a newsroom training program I’m preparing for Africa next week.) So we are left with the question: Will their rethinking, or anyone’s, bring back regular readers and advertisers to a print product?

One can only base an opinion of any paper on personal interests: Does it read and feel like my paper? Is there news of interest and relevance, packaged appealingly? Is it easy to use, and to read? And a biggie: ultimately, do all these things compel me to part with 75 cents every day, especially in a market where a free mini-me edition already has established wide  appeal – and of course, where most of the same information is available online, or via cell  phone, for free? Time will tell, but I (and the rest of Chicagoland, I’m sure) wish the Trib crew the best of luck.

Perhaps worth noting: While I know at least a few of the people involved with the Trib redesign, and I chat occasionally with Sam Zell’s personal chef while walking my dog near Aldine and Broadway, I was not aware of nor involved in any way with the Trib rethinking process.

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6 Comments

  1. Very interesting viewpoint on this. I’ll be honest – I’ve had the complete opposite reaction as a subscriber and everyday reader of the Tribune (and it’s not because I’m some old fogey – I’m 30 and spend as much time online as anyone). Here are my thoughts (the first post was a reaction from about a month ago when I first read about the redesign and then the second post is from yesterday after actually seeing the product):

    http://frankthetank.wordpress.com/2008/08/15/how-to-kill-a-newspaper/

    http://frankthetank.wordpress.com/2008/09/29/someone-vomited-on-my-newspaper/

  2. mcarsello

     /  November 19, 2008

    The death of a great newspaper! The redesign of the Chicago Tribune is awful. The writing has been completely dumb down and reduced to tidbits of information, I want real news. The layout is confusing, I do not know where to look because the ads and the articles blend together on the page. The front cover looks and reads like the National Inquirer.

    I have been a long time reader of the Chicago Tribune (25 years) and have always appreciated the intellectual and well reported stories in a traditional well organized layout. Sadly, I no longer want to read what has become a completely sensationalized newspaper. I canceled my subscription.

  3. I think your observations on the design are pretty accurate. But like you said earlier in your article, who really cares? You read for the content, not the design. And like you, I read less and less of the Trib these days. I actually like the online version better mostly because of the breaking news and the mug shots.

    I also agree that their local coverage is just so-so. I’d really love for them to do more hard hitting expose type stuff specifically on how our government spends our money.

    Wayne

  4. Rovin Jagmohan

     /  April 3, 2011

    @mcarsello: I completely disagree with you! I think the new design is similar to USA Today, which is a paper I love. I do agree, some of the articles have been “dumbed down” somewhat. Just my 2c.

    -RJagmohan from Miami Carnival

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