Famine, corruption, public safety: How rethinking a newsroom heightened its watchdog role.
By Ron Reason
One of my primary interests as a journalist, editor, and visual storyteller, working with news organizations around the globe, is to use the primary entry point of the reader – the front page of the newspaper – as a place to create art, drama, excitement and emotion, where appropriate. My work with The Standard (the second largest newspaper in East Africa) has turned out to be a prime showcase for this kind of work.
The showcase of front pages, after the relaunch, shown above reflects a variety of urgent stories: Corruption. Famine. Assault on press freedoms. The explosion of a large grocery store in downtown Nairobi that left many dead, due to lack of safe exits and fire control mechanisms. (A few of the pages are covers for an inside weekly supplement called “CCI,” or Crime, Courts, and Investigations, which takes an in-depth investigative look at a particular problem each week.) Each of the pages has impact because of the transformation work we undertook in the newsroom.
When I tell folks that my work includes “redesigning newspapers,” they often are left scratching their heads. “So, you decide where the ads go?” Well, not really. I’ve learned in recent years to abandon “redesign” and simply state that I rebrand news publications – most people get branding these days, and really, at its heart, that’s what redesign is. It does involve creating a new logo, selecting new fonts for headlines (for greater readability or legibility or impact when viewed from afar, as on a front page), new color schemes, new “story structures” such as briefs, summaries, subheadlines, and so on. But my approach also involves leadership training, strategic realignment, clarification of mission. In the end, this can create a new spirit that connects with readers and makes a difference in society.
A huge part of what I do, particularly in foreign or Third World markets, is extensive training of the staff to get them to think more visually, more graphically. We hold workshops on what makes a great front page photo? We discuss planning and teamwork, partnering with writers and editors to be in the right place at the right time and pursuing the right angles.
If the photos of the day aren’t that great, is there a way to use dramatic typography to tell the story, or an illustration, or an infographic such as a map or diagram showing how or where a news event unfolded? I’ve been a headline writer for many years, and page one editor, so I’m passionate about the power of great headlines (maybe even a series of subheads) to attract attention. Why is this important? Readers are scanners, and are picky – they decide what to read based on the few initial bold or large words we give them to make up their minds. In a market like Nairobi, where 90% of the newspaper’s circulation comes from street sales, front page presence is vital.
Standard editors told me after my third or fourth visit that this was one of the main reasons they hired me to revitalize their newsroom. After my first few visits, they invited me back for what became a 3-year engagement, working in the print newsroom, marketing, advertising, and finally, digital media departments.
Editors reported post-redesign, sales took a jump and greater dialogue was sparked in the community – they partly credited the bolder front pages, featuring new types of photo selection and sizing, typographic emphasis, and headline content. One of the best bits of feedback: An editor who said one of the country’s most corrupt lawmakers phoned him up, hopping mad, about how he was depicted on a recent front page. The ultimate defense: While the photo and headline placement were dramatic, they were absolutely true. The man was fleecing the country and the editor explained that it was the newspaper’s duty to the nation to expose this.
Of related interest:
- A related essay: one photo reflects the search for “truth” in Africa.
- Working in Africa: What’s that like?
- Formal announcement of the Standard relaunch.
- Additional blog posts about my work internationally.
- Elsewhere in Kenya: Work I’ve done in the Kibera slum, establishing a community library and boosting a local arts collective.