Newspaper redesign today:
Start at the bottom line

Several encounters in recent months have prompted me to delve into the financial realities of the redesign process. (Did that get your attention?)

Case #1: In negotiating with a potential client, I asked the top editor: “What are your newspaper’s revenue projections for 2010?” (Meaning, say, are you aiming for an increase in revenue of 6 percent? Or perhaps to break even? Or maybe to lose just 2 percent instead of 15 percent?) His clipped response: “I don’t have anything to do with that side of things. The financial manager might have answers to that.”

This suggested a couple of things. The financial manager is not talking with the editor about things they need to be talking about, and the editor didn’t seem to be too concerned with how the journalistic (and staffing/budget allocation) decisions he was making weekly were resonating with advertisers.

Case #2: In one of my newsroom visits, I engaged a conference room full of very smart, cross-departmental minds in a conversation about ways to generate new revenue, turn around a trend of dismal monthly revenue reports (actually losses), and perhaps even save some of their jobs. One of the ideas floated was considering new kinds of sponsorships for editorial content or specific architectural destinations in the newspaper, with of course, a cautious eye toward ethics and values. While most (in particular the ad staff) seemed open to at least discussing the idea, several journalists bristled, seemed not to even want to discuss it (let alone prototype and float to potential advertisers), and were adamant that any potentially ambiguous mix of editorial and advertising was the sure road to damnation. Proclamations of J-school ethics professors circa 1978 were evoked.

Let’s take the two issues separately. First, the editor who was unconcerned with the bottom line. While many├é┬ánewspapers have been forced to move to this new way of thinking, making editors more concerned with the appeal of their content in the ad market, there are too many left that are saddled with this mindset. Any more, I won’t engage in a redesign without including the advertising conversation on Day One (actually, I ask about this during “Phone Call One” or “Email One,” from the moment of initial contact with a potential client). Is the current organization of the paper, content mix and visual brand a hit, or not, with advertisers? (You could ask the same about readers, but if it’s not with readers, it’s not with advertisers.) If not, what can be done to make it so?

This, in 2010, is where a print redesign needs to begin. GONE are the days of: let’s redesign just to freshen up, consider new fonts and a logo and maybe an index, move things around on the page, and surely young readers will come on board, turn around circulation declines, and advertisers will come knocking. Not only has this passive approach NEVER worked to increase ad revenue, but now is not the time to be anything less than aggressive and strategic in pursuing a redesign from the standpoint of its appeal to new (or lost) advertisers. Let’s be honest: “Classifieds” in most markets are going, going, gone. Display ads, inserts or other avenues need to at least remain steady if not improve for a newspaper to survive.

Not only is there no sin in brainstorming new content, new packaging, new destinations (columns, pages, spreads or supplements) for their appeal to new advertisers, but it’s become imperative. This includes a frank conversation about “advertorial” products as well. In my approach, we include ad sales and circulation managers and staff in the early stages of brainstorming the new paper, float ideas before big potential advertisers, prototype, and bring the new products to market in a strategic way.

As for the second issue, the reluctance (in some cases, refusal) to consider alternative advertising opportunities. Of course we never want to throw our editorial integrity out the window, and passion about the “sacred trust” of newspapers needs to live on. But please, let’s now engage in an open, smart conversation about the pros and cons of how we might make more money in new ways, and yes, survive. Criticism: “Readers will be confused by ads that appear within, above, or in some cases, next to editorial content.” Really? Tell that to any user of any news website, anywhere in the world. People have been used to this crazy-quilt approach to ad placement on the web for a decade or more – let’s move on from this fear. Does this mean we throw out all standards of hierarchy, placement, and organization for print ads? No – print is a different creature, more static than the web, and any innovative placement has to be considered carefully. This includes a thoughtful approach to philosophy as well as design. Criticism: “A ‘sponsorship’ implies that the advertiser is influencing our coverage.” Again, let’s take a deep breath. You might not want Chase Bank to sponsor a markets page where you cover, in a breaking news sense (or opinion) the precarious positions of the banking system as a whole. But features and other “neutral” coverage is ripe for new kinds of advertising thinking. Why can’t a gardening page be sponsored by a home superstore? Or an organic cooking column by Whole Foods? Why can’t the comics or crossword be sponsored by a local mall, arcade or movie house, where readers might seek diversion of a real-world sort? (When I say “sponsorship” I mean, labeling its presence as such, and often, featuring the ad design above, or integrated within, the content. Ooh, scary, I know!)

If there’s any lesson to be had from both these case studies, it’s that now is not the time to be closed-minded in our thinking about new ways to generate revenue, and the newspaper redesign process needs to evolve to make this a huge priority, from the absolute starting point of a project (including search for a consultant), not three months after the debut of a new look. An effective redesign project will include a diplomatic and strategic airing of possibilities and concerns, a realistic approach to prototyping ads and editorial content together, then an effective period of vetting the new ideas in front of newsroom staff, readers, and advertisers.

Updated July 2010: Want some samples of the “bottom line” approach in action? Check out my redesign of Creative Loafing, the alternative newsweekly in Atlanta, where advertising innovations were among the first big challenges addressed. The first of a number of blog posts addressing the Creative Loafing relaunch/redesign project can be found here. Next up: Washington City Paper, one of the nation’s best regarded alt-weeklies, slated for a fall 2010 revamp.


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    1 Comment

    1. Kelly Parsons

       /  February 28, 2010

      Unfortunately, the editors remaining in newsrooms today were mostly trained in traditional J-school programs that never required the slightest bit of concern over revenue generation. Everyone has come late to this party, and mostly now, acts like ostriches with their heads in the sand. Too bad. Maybe the next generation will come forth with more of an economic mindset.

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