Chicago Reader redesign:
A new music section to flip for

Chicago Reader newspaper redesign: Prototypes for rebranding of music section into B SIDE

[Prototypes for covers of B Side: Chicago's Music Magazine,
the new music section of the Reader. Click to enlarge]

Welcome to “READER Week,” a series of posts looking at the April 28, 2011 relaunch of the Chicago READER, the alternative newsweekly celebrating its 40th year. To kick things off, we look at what may be the most notable innovation for the project, the rebranding of the music section into Reader B SIDE, a new kind of music publication. In the coming days, we preview other big changes, answer questions about the redesign, and go inside the READER’s new approach to advertising, which views design, placement, and service to print advertisers in new ways. In other words, this one’s not just about the fonts.

* * *

What’s the change, and what’s the thinking behind it?

The music section is being rebranded Reader B SIDE: CHICAGO’S MUSIC MAGAZINE. It now will have a glossy magazine-stock cover, will be stapled, and will start from the back page. When the front section of the paper is flipped upside-down, B SIDE reads sequentially, like a magazine (not backward, as many metro tabloids treat their back-page sports sections).

The Reader really has two distinct, major audiences among readers and advertisers: one for music, one for politics-news-arts-food (everything else). Why not make the distinction more bold, and make the coverage easier to find and use for music fans? I asked, why not hold it up and distribute it like a local Rolling Stone or SPIN? (A music “pullout” was tried in recent years, but for various reasons, was not always possible with press configurations, so it recently reverted back to random inside pages.)

Chicago is one of the world’s great music cities, and music remains one of the paper’s strongest ad streams. With every project, I encourage the client to explore the questions, “Why not? What if?” To put bold ideas on the table, even those that might seem too weird or that might have been shot down previously. Reader Publisher Alison Draper supported – even insisted on – this approach to redesign from the start.

What if readers think the flip is a mistake?

The paper has already begun previewing the change in format for readers, via house ads in print, and for non-readers online. An editor’s note this week will further explain what’s going on. Preview groups got the concept right away, without explanation, and viewed it as a dynamic change.

In other markets where I’ve recommended the flip, for daily newspaper sports sections, this sort of advance warning has dispelled any confusion. (For my revamp of the San Francisco Examiner from broadsheet to tabloid, the flip was previewed physically by television broadcasters. Same thing happened with my redesign for The Standard in Nairobi, Kenya. There, I was told some readers were a bit confused on launch day, because there is little overlap between TV viewership and print readership, but that they quickly got the concept and it became a hit.) View pages from Examiner redesign. View pages from Standard redesign.

How in hell did editorial get that space back from advertising?

Concern over the loss of back-page ad revenue was raised immediately, and almost as quickly, Draper said: Let me deal with that. She realized that the “Why not? What if?” exercise needs you to put all your cards on the table and to look at the pros and cons of any new idea fairly. We talked through: What’s it gonna cost us? What do we gain? She knew immediately there was a “buzz factor” with the flip concept, and thought the overall change could create appeal to many kinds of advertisers, not just back-page premium folks.

She also pointed out: now we have TWO full-page inside cover ad positions, to be sold at a premium, now on glossy stock. We’ve also explored possible B SIDE anchor positions for ads on the cover, which you see on the prototype samples above (and which may change), but everyone agreed this will only be done if depth is kept to a minimum and the ad design is monitored closely. (In other words, only suitable advertisers, with minimal words and great design – no 5″ deep pizza parlor ads with every ingredient and menu item listed, a hundred bad fonts and garish colors.)

OK, once you get over the gimmick, is it really an improvement?

If nothing else, the quirky new format and new name will say “look at me” and get readers, current and new, to notice a number of improvements inside. As with the rest of the paper (as we’ll preview in a blog post tomorrow), B SIDE will be packed with a rotation of new features, with an emphasis on community participation and revamped, easier-to-use music listings. New columns will share what the paper’s music writers are thinking about outside the clubs, and give a voice to artists and bands interviewing each other – “capturing the conversation” in Chicago’s music community, as new Reader Editor Mara Shalhoup told WBEZ radio. Joining the redesign process mid-stream, Shalhoup (with whom I worked on the Creative Loafing redesign in Atlanta last year, a very different project) has brought these and other ideas, and tons of energy and expertise about the music scene. She’s working closely with Art Director Paul John Higgins to bring a number of new music content ideas to life.

The B SIDE brand name and magazine concept offer new marketing and distribution opportunities as well – the free weekly can now be distributed B SIDE-up at record stores, bars, or other venues where music content may have more appeal than the Reader’s traditional front page. It redefines and amplifies the brand and potentially creates greater expectation and engagement among existing or new audiences (which is what advertisers have been clamoring for). The paper could also be distributed in two READER boxes side by side, with the traditional front cover (or “A SIDE”) displayed next to the punchier B SIDE cover for music fans.

What happens when you get to the middle? The point where B SIDE ends and meets the rest, coming from the other side? Awkward, no?

We’re basically letting the readers figure that out, as magazines typically do. (Entertainment Weekly did this a few weeks back with a special “flip” edition, with a Liz Taylor tribute section starting on the back, and men’s and women’s titles often do this with fall fashion, for example.) But we’re also putting classified in the middle, as a bit of a buffer (as Draper says, another unconventional feature of the redesign, moving it from the back) so readers come at classifieds from both front and back. A revamped classifieds strategy seeks to strengthen apartments, some job categories and other areas which remain strong revenue sources for the paper.

What about that name, B SIDE? I get it, you’re talking about vinyl, 45s, but what about younger readers? They won’t get it.

Please. They get it. (Another option considered earlier for a new name was Flip Side, but that didn’t seem to click quite as well.)

* * *

Here are a few questions and answers about Week One of the redesign. Meanwhile, if you have any other questions, concerns or fears about the B SIDE concept, or the Reader redesign in general, post in the comments field below (for moderation/approval), or email me at ron (at) ronreason.com.

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1 Comment

  1. Looking forward to picking up the real thing Ron. Thanks for sharing your insights.

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