Want more zip? Grade your publication’s spirit

Great conversations with creative directors and production managers here in Toronto, with the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. There aren’t a huge number of the art folk here, but they are smart and passionate about their papers, digital products and overall brand. Several have shared this concern: with the tightening of news hole, and down sizing (or elimination) of visual budgets, “I worry my paper looks formulaic and routine. How can I convince my editor, publisher or owner to take this seriously? If we think this way about the paper, imagine what the readers and advertisers must feel.”

Good point. If stuck in such a rut, you’re probably fit to be tied, don’t know this way from that, and maybe even want to chew on a pickle! The paper is probably making “some” money. It’s gotta be acceptable on some level, or the bigs would say: something’s gotta give to freshen up and get us back on track. What is that and how do we do it?

For starters, I urged one creative manager make his case this way: back home, post as many of their most dull (or gray or chaotic or monotonous) layouts on one wall of a conference room (Wall of Shame). On the opposing wall, tape up as many cool, dynamic, open, inviting, surprising pages from the wealth of papers that were shared here in Toronto or that you have gathered from elsewhere (Wall of Fame). Assemble your paper’s brain trust, ask them to study both walls, and say: which would we rather be? No reader is ever going to look at your pages this way (let’s hope), but over time, the Wall of Shame or the Wall of Fame represents the impression they have of your brand.

At the end of the day, a tight, cramped, formulaic look is the result of management and leadership (or lack thereof). They either give a hoot, or they don’t. The tough part is this: typically you really need to brainstorm some serious new revenue generation in order to pay for more space to do more cool things; either that, or ditch all your listings online, publish only “critics’ picks,” and buy back some more space that way.

Another way to tackle the issue: Grade yourself on a variety of measures that you think indicate excellence in presentation and brand identity. These might include the following, but feel free to add your own. Ask: do we want to project these characteristics? On a scale of 1 to 5, to what extent do we do so now? On that same scale, where would we like to aim?

  • fun __
  • well paced* __
  • provocative __
  • edgy __
  • surprising __
  • smart __
  • visual __
  • impactful __
  • unique __
  • desirable __

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* Here’s what I mean: I have redesigned tabloids for years, from the San Francisco Examiner (crazy!) to the Boston Herald to the Emirates Post of Dubai and recently, The Standard in Nairobi. I know and love tabs. From the start, I strongly believe that tabloids need to be “paced” in a way that doesn’t quite apply to broadsheets. Does every page have the same small, cramped feeling? As you flip through it does it seem to drone on, or does anything jump out at you? Do any open pages break up the mix? (And not just your cover story.) Are they strategically placed to wake people up or quicken their pulse every so often? And are they open, inviting, surprising pages?

With section openers in particular – Food, Music, whatever the topic – you have the chance to create the sensation of a “newspaper with in a newspaper” (or “magazine within a newspaper” if you prefer). I liken it to fireworks going off, every 6 to 12 pages depending on your overall size, giving readers (and advertisers) a reward to keep moving through the paper, something to look forward to. (I’ll be addressing this issue more thoroughly, and visually, in a future blog post. Now I have to go to the pool.)

Thoughts? I’d look forward to hearing them. Email me: ron@ronreason.com

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Related Extras:
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Gratuitous and Unrelated Extras:
  • My photos from Burning Man. I’m headed back West at end of August, on a 2-week road trip from God … if you are too, or if you are along the way, say hi!
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