Newspaper reinvention: What can you do in a week?

An interesting question from the recent SND conference in Denver: “How has newspaper design consulting been affected by the economy and the upheaval in the industry?” Answer: Dramatically! GONE are the days of leisurely redesigns that take 9 months or longer … you visit for a casual discussion of change, go back to your studio and work for a few weeks to a month or so, on three sets of prototypes, then return for a “gallery walk” and tons of debate and nitpicking by local managers (often focusing on italics or the shade of blue in the nameplate, and not on things that really matter), then go back to the drawing board for revisions, repeat trips, training visits, etc. No one has the time or stomach for that anymore. Time is of the essence. And to be blunt, few have the budget for so much consulting time, either.

Enter a more compact, efficient process where newspapers are rolling up their shirt sleeves and getting down to business, creating some serious reinvention often within a matter of a week or even a few days of on-site time. Yes, some of my clients still ask for several months of engagement for more complex projects. But many smaller clients opt for an intense, targeted “one week workshop” (actually 3-4 days can work well, too) with suitable prep and follow-up from afar, to get the job done quickly. In this case, consulting fees are smaller, but the requirement on the client is often greater, to get down to decision-making quickly and to provide more of the prototyping manpower than they might have in the past. To wit:

  • At Creative Loafing in Atlanta, an intense four days on site in May resulted in significant new ideas for reshaping the brand, for a relaunch just four weeks later. (See this recent link here about advertising innovations that came out of that intense week, with links at the bottom to earlier posts about the CL relaunch.) Editors and designers at CL worked hard to clear the decks of their usual routine in order to think clearly and critically with me about the dramatic new changes they wanted to make. I oversaw the process and painted in “broad strokes,” whereas in the past, I might have been mired in small details early on in the process. The process was exhilarating.
  • For Media General’s Metro newspapers (Tampa Tribune, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Winston-Salem Journal), an initial design workshop, just a few days, with representatives from the three papers earlier this spring resulted in major steps toward a realigned design to be shared by the three markets. (Tampa debuts its new look soon, on Oct. 12, 2010 – watch this blog next week for details – with the other papers changing in December, when two new editing centers are up and running.)
  • Another Media General project is moving swiftly as well. The goal: to create a cleaner, more modern design to be shared among several dozen small community dailies and weeklies. First step: editors and publishers attended a one-day “consciousness raising” session in Richmond, where I detailed redesign case studies and walked through how the process might go, but also sought their feedback. Out of this came a small work group, who gathered in Lynchburg, VA a few weeks later. They were ready to hit the ground running for a one-day intense design workshop, resulting in significant decision-making for the new design to be adopted later this year. We have some follow-up work to do, including weekly conference calls and lots of exchanging of emails and files, but we are moving forward quickly with our work.
  • Last year I was invited by the Santa Fe New Mexican for sort of a one-week residency, to help mediate an internal conversation about change. On the table: what were the pros and cons about a possible conversion to tabloid format? How to think in innovative ways about generating new advertising content? (A real challenge for a paper that is already super aggressive in publishing niche products.) How should relationships between editorial, advertising and marketing evolve – or be created – to position the paper for improvement?
  • Previously, I’ve spent intense weeks at newspapers including Folha de Sao Paulo in Brazil, Hindustan Times in New Delhi, ABC Newspaper Group in Madrid, doing training on visual thinking and newsroom leadership, teamwork and communications.

Like the newspaper industry, I’ve had to create dramatic new models for getting my own work done, more quickly, more creatively. Proposals and pitches are totally different. Discussions of marketing and advertising enter the picture much earlier (in fact, during the proposal phase) – and one of my new tenets has become, “how can your reinvention create specific appeal for new or lost advertisers, to boost your bottom line?”

But in any newsroom consultation, collaboration remains essential, listening to the local team is critical, and in fact, having the in-house designers do more of the initial prototypes actually bolsters the sense of ownership in a redesign. I’m enjoying the quick decision-making and shorter time it takes to get to the street. In some markets, the speed even makes it easier for innovative ideas to be put on the table.

The down side for me? Working harder for less money. But isn’t that the name of the game for everyone these days?

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