An alt-weekly wish list: Editing, design, spirit

[Newer Post: 7 Things to Love About The Stranger: An Illustrated Guide.]

More thoughts from a weekend immersion in the world of alternative weekly newspapers. Fun crowd with lots of talent, energy, and passion, despite the challenges of the current economic climate. Here’s a little fantasizing about where I’d take them in a perfect world of even slightly expanded resources and unbound imagination:

FORMAT: I’d give every paper a format with page dimensions that offer some contrast. Tall and lean like The Stranger, small and lean (and stitched) like the compact Weekly Dig in Boston. Anything but the squatty, square dimensions adopted by many alt weeklies (and mainstream US daily tabloids). There’s just no contrast in the square shape, and it very often diminishes the contrast you can create in your layouts; aside from the rare 2-page spreads I’m seeing, there’s really little chance to really create some wow (at least in the shapes of text and images) within the square tab shape. (In most cases, cost savings and/or the realities of printer restrictions have forced the move to this shape, I’m aware.)

HEADLINES: I’d challenge the hammer head/ deck structure that seems to carry 90% of the stories in alt weeklies. The 2-3 word hammer heads, in particular, often say little and waste an opportunity to grab the reader. Worst offender: headlines in 48 pt or above that simply give me the name of the movie, musical act or play. Looks like a press release or a poster for the event; generic, boring, and hey, I’ve already seen the name of that movie a million times. Give me a little spin. Run the label stuff (name of film or event) in 14 pt type, and use the main heads and decks to give me some unique perspective or attitude. And no, it doesn’t take that long to write “a real headline,” as I’ve heard argued.

LONG GRAY STORIES: Nothing wrong with the “long” part here, if the content merits it. But the gray part … please. It’s 2010. I know space is tight, but no one is done any favors when a 2400-word treatise is crammed into a tight space with only a mug shot. And no subheads. Which brings me to my next point:

BODY TEXT SIZE: Want more people over 35 to read your publication? Stop fooling yourselves into thinking that the way to deal with a tightened news hole is to take the body text down from 10 to 8. Or the listings font down from 8 to 7 or 6. Or 5. (Hello, Onion AV Club! Your listings font is now the best joke in the book.) Either cut the stories, summarize them and tease to the full version online, or stop publishing in print.

DEAL WITH THE CLUTTER: A funny thing happened on the way to 2010. Alternative weeklies, which always relied on eclectic, noisy, fun, chaotic advertising, now deal with the same advertising (or a bit less of it), but on full color presses, from clients who want to cram twice the message into ads that are half the size (downsized spending budgets, you know). It’s time to take a step back, look in particular at how closely we jam up our editorial stuff alongside the ads. Reviewing about 50 alt weekly editions at our conference in Toronto, I feel that the covers often sing, but the insides too often look, feel and smell like overpacked luggage.

SURPRISE: There’s not nearly enough surprise in this niche of papers that really should be known for it. The Stranger (Seattle) was the one paper of many I reviewed, that over a month of issues, really wowed me with an overall spirit of surprise. In headlines, in story selection, in visuals. Instantly created a feeling that I wanted to be invited to that party. (Or at least visit Seattle. Or judge its amateur porn contest.) I hear people all the time blame the monotony on staff shortages, budget cutbacks, and space constraints, but I don’t accept that. It’s a management and morale issue, plain and simple. I’ve seen staffs of one create kick-ass surprise with press releases, wire stories and handout art.

Yes, even with brutally tight staffs, there’s some great rabble-rousing reporting going on. And some fine cover display. But in too many papers, visuals have been kicked in the gut, and inside formats and readability have taken a real beating. I’m encouraged to hear the keen interest in rebuilding and getting creative about how to serve advertisers better, buy back some space, and recover some of the visual punch many papers have (reluctantly) had to give up in the past few years.

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I’m now offering special quick-hit “consciousness raising” newsroom visits, from one day to one week, for those who need a helping hand to shake things up, mediate, critique, cajole, irritate and integrate your staffs, to help them think in new ways about marketing, revenue generation, brand presence, redesign, spirit, and related topics. Email me at ron@ronreason.com to inquire about how recession pricing, or to inquire about references from my Creative Loafing pals or other recent projects.

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  1. True’s run at the Reader called ‘the alt-weekly equivalent of Shawns glory days at New Yorker’

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