A new START for Atlanta’s alt weekly

Live pages from the Creative Loafing relaunch, debuting June 10, 2010, in Atlanta.

CREATIVE LOAFING REINVENTS, FROM ATTITUDE TO AD INNOVATIONS

[June 10, 2010] “Would you describe your paper as more of a lecture, or a conversation?”

That was the question I asked Editor Mara Shalhoup, after I was first invited to consult on the redesign of Atlanta’s Creative Loafing – one of the nation’s better known and pioneering alternative weeklies – and I had analyzed several months of the paper, and some early in-house prototypes.

Her enthusiastic response – “a conversation!” – inspired a number of ideas that I shared with the staff and that quickly found their way into design models (created during an intense weeklong “redesign boot camp”), and into the paper’s vibrant relaunch, making its debut today.

CEO Marty Petty and VP/CMO Henry Scott had asked me to visit Atlanta to push the staff to create something new and bold and wake up the market. On a “Wow Scale” of 1 to 10, I suggested we create concepts and designs that aimed for 11 or 12. (If we had to scale back to 8 or 9, for resources or other reasons, so be it – we’d still be ahead of the game.) This included advertising destinations as well as editorial innovations. We all wanted the “conversation” of this reinvented paper to be more provocative, raucous and fun, in design, content and spirit. To wit:

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I suggested that the “old school” labeling system for department logos and key pages – Contents, News, Editorials, Music, Food, Listings – be replaced by an “active voice” concept: catchy, unique and imperative. The Contents page becomes START (more on that below), and a new corresponding end page (inside back cover) is named STOP, with a handful of elements to make the readers pause before making their exit. Music turns into LISTEN. Arts and Entertainment is now LOOK. The paper’s seriously yummy Food coverage lands in TASTE.

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A hallmark of alt weeklies, at least in the U.S., has been their saucy ads in the back, for – ahem – gentlemen’s clubs, dating hotlines and the like. Brainstorming over dinner, Henry Scott told me these pages are always treated internally with sort of a “wink.” I said why not seize this and just run with it, package content around it, to create a page or even a pullout section called wink*? (Italics for this logo, please, and an asterisk to boot.) On the more serious side, the paper would be reintroducing an editorial page. Why call it Opinion, when we could brand it THINK? With these bold headers, we jump start a conversation, an imperative one, running through the book.

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Eclectic, bold advertising has always been part of the appeal of alt weeklies, and ad innovations were a key thing I wanted to put on the table. Create new shapes, anchor them with new unique editorial features, and give advertisers (lost or new) a reason to be excited about print again. Suddenly we had a half-dozen new concepts to put in front of advertisers, each with a distinct name, philosophy and rate structure – the Intruder Ad, the Peel-away, the Strip, the Sandwich Ad (shown below), and others. Some may not fly with advertisers, but why not mock them up, put them out there, and give it a try? Here are some more details of specific features and the process: AN FRESH NEW TAKE ON A CONTENTS PAGE

The new contents page, START, includes a premium ad position.

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The START page was one of the toughest things to design, aiming for a little “orchestrated chaos,” and still may require fine-tuning, but a challenge that Mara and Creative Director Markus Schneider dove into with gusto. For starters, I asked, does anyone really read traditional index pages (Contents) in a paper like this? Maybe a reader wants to know the page number for music listings, so yes, lets find a few inches for an index (to the left of the new START logo); but do I need a narrative teaser for every single story? “POLITICS: Residents fuming as mayor seeks increase in water rates. See Page 9.” (Hello, 1987 called, it wants its index back!) Such things are a burden on the staff to create, a dubious use of precious news hole, and a bore for readers, who mostly either go right to the departments they really want to read (food reviews, etc.) or leaf through and scan every major headline, looking for the juicy stuff. After the cover, this is really where the conversation begins – so I envisioned a Page 3 that would feel like someone entering a really fun party, with a diverse, exciting, vocal mix of guests: You walk through the door, overhear a juicy comment in the kitchen from someone spouting off about a local politician. In the living room, a foodie’s getting animated about the new fusion restaurant with the best tapas in town. Waiting for the bathroom, someone else pans a recent club gig by a touring rapper. A hot guest flirts with you while making drinks … Why not pull the readers into the paper with specific, enticing quotes from scenarios like this? Out went the old Contents page. In with START, the new Page 3 lineup of in-your-face quotes, the most provocative quotes in the paper. (Luckily it was easy to find many sprinkled throughout the stories, and this new feature promises to inspire more.) The quotes feature only the page number on which they appear, no attribution – these are pure teasers. At the bottom of the page are more  provocative quotes, drawn from the lively blogs on the Creative Loafing website. “The new, fresh, clean designs, and the engaging ‘active voice’ section headers and ‘START’ page concept draw readers into the conversation,” said Markus Schneider, Creative Director. The page was conceptualized as such a hot new landing point for eyeballs that a new premium ad, “the Intruder,” was designed to interrupt the conversation.

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DEBATING THREE STRONG  DESIGN MODELS

The Creative Loafing staff reviews dozens of prototypes in April 2010

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Some of the final three design models for the Creative Loafing redesign

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Due to time and budget constraints, we didn’t have the luxury as in the past, of spending three months or more, producing an endless parade of prototype pages to ponder over at leisure. NO. Those days are gone. The bulk of the new paper was conceptualized in a week, with a rapid concept development stage and an intense “redesign boot camp.” Three strong design models were quickly executed by Markus and his staff, Senior Art Director Valery Lovely and Art Director Jeremy Fuerst (with a freelance assist from a former Poynter fellow, Omar Vega). The various design models, each with a distinctive font mix option – one more bold, one more literary, one more quirky – were debated over just a few days, with one winner emerging and taken off for refinement. Staff response to the “active voice” labels was immediately enthusiastic.

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THE REVENUE QUESTION – CAN A REDESIGN BOOST THE BOTTOM LINE?

An alternative ad for the food section

The "Sandwich Ad" is a premium ad position in the "Taste" section

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Along the way, I kept a keen eye on the revenue question. The Creative Loafing chain of alt weeklies (including award-winners DC City Paper and the Chicago Reader, both of which I look forward to working with next) had just emerged from financial reorganization, and some tough staff layoffs. The new look would not only have to clean things up, and entertain and invite readers, but that alone wouldn’t be enough.

I always advise clients: why just switch fonts? Why not redesign for growth? I felt we had to really be pro-active and give advertisers some specific, new exciting advertising innovations, nothing seen in the market (or anywhere else, that we knew of). A half dozen enticing models emerged, such as the “Sandwich Ad” shown above, and and the “Intruder” Ad, designed to “interrupt” the party we had created with the START page, shown at the top of this blog post. As with the others, it’s designed to occupy a premium space, coordinated with editorial content and design to look harmonious and not like a bad accident.

A number of editorial content enhancements made their way into the new paper as well. “For readers, a big draw will definitely be our new nightlife column. That scene has been missing from our pages for a while, and I think devoting serious space to it will up our cool cache and be a popular read,” Managing Editor Chante LaGon told me. Congrats to Mara, Henry, Chante, Markus, Marty and their teams, for making it to the finish line this week!

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS ABOUT THE PROJECT … Already I’ve received some interesting queries about this project and related issues. Some answers are below; if you have questions, email me or post in the comments field and I’ll consider adding to this list.

Q} Are alt weeklies even relevant? A} You could argue that any medium that’s still in publication, making money or breaking even, with circulation holding more or less steady, is relevant. As relevant as daily papers, television news, magazines. Everyone knows times have been tough for traditional media and the future is unclear. One of the biggest challenges to the alt weeklies is that SO many others have joined on the listings bandwagon – in Chicago alone, Time Out has barged onto the scene along with Metromix, Gapers Block, Yelp, Groupon, and scores of other websites, apps and email blasts. But the biggest opportunity: in many markets, the competing dailies have had to scale back or eliminate editorial coverage in key areas, which frustrates advertisers, and this may suggest opportunities for new coverage, features or products to attract those advertisers.

Q} Are designs or ideas from the Atlanta paper any indicator of the work you might want to do at the Chicago Reader? A} No. Those papers are in very different markets with a different readership, mission, competitive environment, etc. Some similarities may exist with listings and things like that, and some elements of my process may be similar (brainstorming, quick prototyping, etc.) but any other client would start with more of a fresh slate. You start by listening to the local publisher, editor and staff and go from there. Another difference is that Atlanta had already started its redesign in-house, so to some extent we worked with some concepts (some of the smaller design details) that were already in place. (Updated: Chicago Reader relaunch scheduled for April 28, 2011. Return to this blog that week for a behind-the-scenes look. Coincidentally, Mara Shalhoup became the Reader’s new editor in March 2011 and is directing the completion of its redesign.)

Q} What’s the best thing about working with alt weeklies? A} No need to “worry about what Grandma will think,” the sensitivities you need to keep in mind working with a “family newspaper.” The content can be much more freewheeling and raucus. I loved the pull quote at the top of Atlanta’s new editorial page this week, taking a jab at the editor of the competing Journal-Constitution by republishing her statement: “What we found is [readers] don’t want us to be a newspaper with a strong point of view.” Snarky, but relevant in terms of igniting thought and debate, in this case: what’s the role of a newspaper in guiding the community’s conversation? As a journalist, I find the lack of bite to many U.S. daily newspapers to be disappointing.

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10 Comments

  1. Chris Gloede

     /  June 10, 2010

    Wow, it looks great Ron. Like the active voice approach which make the paper seem very fresh. Will be interesting to see how the ads work out. Nice peek into the creative process.

  2. Is it unintentionally ironic that the self-described definition of Creative Loafing is “a conversation,” and the section heads within appear to be commands?

  3. Hmmm … maybe it’s actually an invitation to a conversation? Provocation of a conversation? In any case, someone’s gotta get the ball rolling! Thanks for reading the blog.

  4. Bo

     /  June 17, 2010

    Love it. Congratulations, Ron!

  5. Arindam Biswas

     /  June 21, 2010

    Nice “Active Voice” concept. Cover shows the real thing , news, food, arts etc. Will it continue as it is or change after sometime when the readers get used to of “Taste”, “See” etc.

  6. The current thinking is that until the new topic labels sink in, that they will be more straightforward on the cover, and on the website. Thanks for your note!

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