Chicago Reader redesign:
‘Will it get me to pick up the paper?’

“READER Week” continues, heralding the April 28, 2011 relaunch of the Chicago Reader. This post previews key changes that aim to make the print edition more appealing to readers and advertisers. There are dozens of smaller improvements to navigation and new content, but below are the biggies. In editing this post, I decided to address a fellow Chicagoan who asked about the redesign earlier this week: “Does this mean I should start picking it up again after about a 7 year absence?” Tough challenge, but he raised a good point. You can’t say “we’ve redesigned – check out our fresh new look” or “handy new size” and hope old readers will come flocking back, or new ones will come on board. That doesn’t work and probably never did. Some people just don’t want to read print. Others do, but don’t want to read a stale or hard-to-read product. So let’s focus on them. What’s the substance with the changes? How do I get more value out of the paper, and how it is a better reading experience? And, by extension, how does better reader engagement help advertisers? (More on that key question in a later blog post.) Here are a number of reasons a Chicagoan may want to consider seeking out the Reader, again or for the first time, and why advertisers may want to take notice as well.

Chicago Reader newspaper redesign 2011: Prototypes for front cover

[Cover prototypes for Chicago Reader redesign. Click to enlarge.]

IT’S EASIER TO READ AND HANDLE, FOR COMMUTERS ESPECIALLY.

If you just don’t read print, you just don’t read print. But 200,000+ Reader readers do each week, and they don’t want to have to fight with it. They should appreciate that the new paper has a glossy cover, and is stapled. This will make it much easier for Chicagoans who want to read, fold or flip through the paper while riding public transit. Many who were shown previews of the new paper felt the changes also will increase “coffee table life” (length of time a reader is likely to keep it around for access throughout the week), which of course should please advertisers. (For a look at other reader-friendly format changes including a larger body text font, and the back page, which features a rebranded music section, B SIDE, read below. For a closer look at B SIDE, see this earlier blog post.)

IT’S GOT MORE CHICAGO NEWS.

The news pages have been revamped to emphasize that the Reader is rebuilding. Prize-winning investigative reporter Mick Dumke has rejoined the staff, pairing with Ben Joravsky to put the heat on City Hall like no one else in town. (The two were recently nominated for a Richard H. Driehaus Investigative Award award for this coverage.) On average, the paper plans to allocate three to five more pages for Chicago news, analysis and features each week, including a new approach to covering Chicago sports and more in-depth feature stories. Syndicated alt-weekly favorites like Straight Dope and Savage Love remain.

IT’S GOT SHARPER ARTS and FOOD SECTIONS.

Prototypes for Arts and Food sections, Chicago Reader newspaper redesign, 2011.

[Prototypes for feature section openers, Chicago Reader redesign. Click to enlarge.]

A key concern of the old format – partly brought on by cutbacks in news hole and other production changes – was that it was hard to find what you needed and the constricted format left little room for visual excitement. The pacing of the paper is now much improved with “marquee” opening pages in right-hand positions for key sections, giving greater emphasis to strong photos. A retooling of the paper’s award-winning Food & Drink section began in December, with the addition of new features like Key Ingredient, a chef-to-chef cooking challenge that has been nominated for a prestigious James Beard Award. Now, a more dynamic opening page is the front door to the city’s best food reviewers, including chief critic (and James Beard nominee) Mike SulaArts & Culture becomes one mega culture section that fills the center of the publication, bringing together the best of theater, comedy, dance, literature, visual arts and film. The popular Reader Recommends quick lists are revamped to offer expert picks for things to do in each section. In addition, a new feature called Agenda, near the front of the paper, gathers up two pages of of the best dozen or so staff recommendations for things to do in the coming week. It’s all part of a new overall listings strategy for print, web and email blasts that recognizes print products cannot be comprehensive, but instead, need to broadcast their expertise and curate the most notable events around town in smart new ways.

IT’S GOT A LARGER BODY TEXT YOU CAN ACTUALLY READ.

Chicago Reader newspaper redesign. Body font comparison, before and after.

[Body text samples, before and after. For comparative purposes;
scale may vary with your web browser.]

One common complaint in recent years about the Reader was that the body text had gotten so small it had become a terrible chore to read. (And an aging readership poses enough challenges without this albatross.) The new Reader dramatically increases the point size and readability of its body text font, to the largest point size in the paper’s history. Click on the sample above for a before-after comparison. (Via Typographica, a “review” of the new body text font, Exchange, designed by Tobias Frere-Jones.) The new font is one way the paper aims to make reading a pleasure again, and to make the paper easier to handle. Every issue has a new glossy cover and key inside glossy pages, and will be stapled.

IT’S GOT A BRIGHT NEW MUSIC MAGAZINE.

One of the biggest changes readers will notice is a bold new treatment for the paper’s music coverage, rebranded Reader B SIDE and given a magazine treatment. Now with a glossy cover and stapled, it starts on the back page, and is flipped upside-down so that it reads sequentially like a magazine (not backward, as many metro tabloids treat their back-page sports sections). The rebranding presents marketing and distribution opportunities as well, which you can read about in an earlier blog post that explores this new section in-depth.

THE PAPER MAY BE EASIER TO FIND, AND MORE COMPELLING TO ADVERTISE IN.

Many people have said in recent months: It’s not as easy to find the paper as it used to be. Depending on which neighborhood you live in, this can be a challenge. The Reader has invested in a strategic repositioning of its distribution locations to try to get papers into your hands, including the arrival soon of 400 new outdoor boxes. With luck these locations may be closer to where you work or live; if not, just hunt around. IF YOU’RE AN ADVERTISER, there are new reasons to consider working with the Reader. New ad opportunities include: a number of glossy pages added throughout; anchored ad positions on, and adjacencies to, “marquee” or opening pages; a revamped classifieds section farther up in the book; and new features like a drink specials directory, organized by day and neighborhood. All are designed to provide better service to and results for advertisers. (Even in the prototype stage, Publisher Alison Draper placed great emphasis on improving the ad presence, remaking nearly all the ads in a 104-page press test printed last month. Blog post coming later this week: Interview with Draper on the importance of improving ad design, placement, and service to advertisers.)

* * *

To ask me questions about the redesign process, why or how a change was made, use the comments field at the bottom of this page (moderated for approval), or email ron (at) ronreason.com. A few questions from Week One are answered here.

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1 Comment

  1. Joe Knowles

     /  April 26, 2011

    Why I will pick up a copy:
    * The new music section sounds like a must read. The Reader could own this topic in Chicago.
    * More legible body type is a much-needed change… a reader-focused change, the best kind.
    * The glossy finish front and the stapling makes me feel like I can keep it around and pick it up again later in the week. The old format was kind of an eyesore around the house.
    * A new take on Chicago sports? I am intrigued.

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