6 things the news industry can learn from the Chicago Reader (print edition)

[ON THE OCCASION OF ITS 40TH BIRTHDAY]

Chicago Reader redesign 40th anniversary cover back cover

(Related: How our redesign flipped the Reader’s iconic music coverage into its own brand, “B Side.”)

Last year I wrote an admiring post on Seattle alt weekly The Stranger, praising the paper (as well as its integrated, smart and funny marketing and digital efforts), and pondering: This is a paper I’d really seek out if I lived in Seattle. What is it about how they do what they do that makes it so appealing?

The appearance at my local coffee shop this morning of a special 40th anniversary issue of the Chicago Reader (above, with online links below) prompts me to follow up my Stranger love with some Reader props. (While I was the consultant hired to create prototypes and strategy for the paper’s major overhaul that launched in April, I am not formally affiliated with them at this time.)

During the last year, the paper’s gotten its act together in such a way that makes me (as a reader, not a journalist or designer or consultant) once again want to hunt down a copy when it hits the street each Wednesday or Thursday. This was the local habit for decades, for seemingly everyone moving to the city — you made a point to cross the street to get one — but obviously, the “decline of print” has made this less common. What seems to be at work today with the Reader? How did this happen?

Following are six things worth watching about how the Chicago Reader does what it does today — in print.

1) Even with limited resources, its possible (and urgently necessary), to revitalize the editorial mix. 

In the words of Publisher Alison Draper, the paper “had gotten stale,” and advertisers were taking note, and bolting. It wasn’t just that the thing was printed on dead trees. The look, yes, but also a lot of the content and how it was organized came to seem tired. Today, new features, most put into play by new Editor Mara Shalhoup, call to readers from throughout the book. Big ideas like an inverted (and revitalized) music magazine, “B Side,” starting on the back cover, to smaller ideas within, like the Artist on Artist music interview or the award-winning Key Ingredient chef challenge, say to readers, we have surprises in here you’re not going to find anywhere else (i.e., not just listings.) Many new features, like the Culture Vultures or In Rotation columns, bring new voices into the paper at minimal cost (what Shalhoup has called “cultural curation, but a conversation that WE direct.”) OK, fine, this blogger kinda digs the new mix, but more importantly, advertisers have taken notice as well (see Item No. 4, below).

2) The “brain drain” of editorial layoffs matters, and producing substance requires investment – or reinvestment.  

Up to the time of relaunch, the paper came to feel anemic from the loss of talent wrought by layoffs. Yes, good stuff remained, but especially in comparison to the “glory days,” many found it lacking. Shalhoup’s response? Lure investigative reporter Mick Dumke back to the fold, from a brief stint at the Chicago News Cooperative. (Steve Bogira, a Reader veteran of many years among those who had been laid off, had rejoined the paper the year before.) Substantial reporting by each of them, and colleague Ben Joravsky (as well as other staffers and new stringers) jumps out from week to week. It would be hard to miss the message: this paper cares once again, in new ways, about the under-reported stories of Chicago, and we’ll commit the resources, and dig deep, to get them.

3) Advertising matters, not just in terms of revenue, but as content – and design, placement and pacing are crucial.  

The redesign offered up some new sizes, shapes and placement for advertising – admittedly, some were “out there” and haven’t really stuck – but as important, Draper insisted on improving the design and variety of ads, and service to advertisers, and invested in staffing to address this. The Reader was partly known for years for its eclectic and often artistic mix of advertising, telling readers what to do and where to shop — and the anniversary issue this week shows off a bunch of great looking ads, colorful and well designed, and yes, some with unusual shapes, from front to back (and back to the music front again). Pulling this back from a corporate backshop in Atlanta, and recommitting in-house ownership, were key.

4) Given improved service, and a sense of editorial excitement, former advertisers will come back – and new ones will even come on board.  

In June, I had a three-month-later checkup with Draper as she prepared a talk for the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies convention. “How goes advertiser response post-redesign?” I asked. She crowed about three big former advertisers who had come back to the fold (to the tune of $40,000 to $60,000 contracts) who specifically cited the improvements and reinvestment they were seeing in the paper. (In addition to a revised editorial strategy, new glossy covers and inside spreads were available for premium ad spots. The paper just feels more professional.) This week she told me of a number of new recent inquiries from advertisers who had never been with the paper, seeking proposals for ad strategies for the coming year. So something must be working. (In addition to editorial improvements, new hires and new approaches to sales have been put in play.)

5) A paper that has some heft to it feels like it’s worth picking up, and keeping around.  

This summer I spent about a month on the West Coast, off and on, and being a news (print) junkie, tried to seek out alt weeklies wherever I stopped. Most were in the realm of 48 to 52 pages weekly, which really strikes me as a “danger zone” with a product like this  — quite frankly, by the time you fill 50 to 60% with ads, it looks, feels and reads like there’s nothing in it. The Reader, by noticeable contrast, has been at 80 pages or more every week since its relaunch in April. (The annual “Best of Chicago” issue in June, traditionally a biggie, was a robust 168 pages; this week’s anniversary issue is at 104.) While Draper cautions that you can’t judge the financial health of an alt weekly by page count alone (digital’s growing for everyone), readers do notice such things, and when they decry “there’s nothing in it” as a reason to bail, it’s hard to argue. Winning back Chicagoans who’ve left the paper, remembering the “glory days” when it was so hefty you could use it as a doorstop, may be another challenge. Thus:

6) Marketing matters, along with a confident, clean brand presence, and just being able to find the damn thing. 

Last winter I lamented to Draper and her crew: “I can’t  for the life of me find a Reader in my neighborhood (one of Chicago’s best known, Wrigleyville, more or less). What’s the good of redesigning it if no one (meaning: me) can find it? Today’s Chicago Woman has far more boxes in my hood.” (This was true, not my usual hyperbole — I counted.) The paper had fallen off the radar of many in the city, for a variety of reasons that went way beyond “it’s on newsprint, and sorry, I get my news online.” Visibility and marketing were at a low point. (Don’t even ask me about my West Coast paper hunt this city – one major market was littered with ratty boxes, devoid of papers wherever I looked.)

Draper told me to simmer down, she had a plan in place to reevaluate where racks were placed and to put hundreds of new and refurbished boxes on the streets. In the last two months, I’ve noticed a dozen new boxes within 10 blocks of my house, in strategic locations, sporting a ginormous version of the reversed “R” in the paper’s logo that couldn’t be more visible. The boxes seem bright and clean (yeah, for now – stickers and graffiti surely on the way) and, well, sort of proud. Fitting for a milestone birthday year, and a nod to the paper’s accomplishments in the face of turmoil (and resignation) in the newspaper industry. Happy birthday, Reader, and congrats on a year of hard work and a helluva 40th anniversary issue – here’s to many more, in print, online or beyond.

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