In Cincinnati, strategic prep
for the new ‘super compact’ format

Cincinnati Enquirer moves to 'three around, super compact' format

The current Enquirer page size, left, compared with approximate dimensions
of the ‘super compact’ canvas, right. The design is expected to change substantially.

Originally published December 2011. Update: We’ve launched

[CINCINNATI, Ohio] I’ve just returned from an invigorating three days helping to advise the staff of The Cincinnati Enquirer on the paper’s conversion (around October 2012) to a smaller format called “three around/ super compact.” It will be among the first U.S. papers to make the change. (See links to Poynter below for background.) The Columbus Dispatch, on whose presses the Enquirer will be printed, will convert to the smaller shape a bit sooner.

The first question posed by U.S. journalists in particular is: What size is this, exactly? The answer: about 10.5 by 14.5 inches. The second question is often: Will there be a reduction in news hole? None planned here – an increase in page count can provide the same number of column inches. That said, the paper will look and feel quite different, so we grapple with questions like this: How will space be reordered? How can navigation be improved? How can advertising be integrated in a smarter way?

I also call the three around/ super compact a “tall tab” format, as distinct from the square, squatty tab size now adopted by the majority of U.S. tabloids. It’s somewhere between the current U.S. standards for broadsheet and tab, and will be folded but still multi-sectioned. (Traditional/older readers still like to share sections, on that we can all agree.) The illustration above shows the current Enquirer, on left, compared with the approximate real estate afforded by the new format, highlighted on the right. It’s a big difference in size that suggests possibilities for a big difference in spirit, perhaps similar to some U.K. and European newspapers.

The easy answer in a conversion like this might be to cram the contents of the current broadsheet into the smaller shape, increase the page count by 20% so as to keep the same number of column inches, and call it a day. Some newspapers do approach re-formatting in this way, and it’s almost always a big mistake. Think of Kirstie Alley trying to fit into her old fat wardrobe, after slimming down for “Dancing With the Stars.” Doesn’t make sense and wouldn’t make anyone look appealing!

Luckily, Enquirer editor Carolyn Washburn sees the challenge, and opportunity, of the reformatting, and wants to approach this redesign from a comprehensive, and what I call a “diagnostic,” sense. If something can be done better for readers, or advertisers, let’s rethink our content, and culture, to take advantage of the new page shapes and new pacing of the paper. Let’s include all departments in the conversation from the start. Let’s maintain and actually increase appeal to readers (yes, it is possible, and despite recent downsizing, a talented and innovative staff remains at the Enquirer). But also of particular interest are issues like column width and advertising standards – let’s create the best possible environment for both editorial and advertising.

Managerial discussions of the conversion have been going on for months, but really heated up with our three-day staff workshop, across departmental lines, to strategically brainstorm the possibilities. Here are some of the things we did:

  • CREATE A ROADMAP: Our group drafted some guiding language to describe the kind of new newspaper they wanted to create, as well as the process by which it will be created over the next 11 months. (I’m well aware of the skepticism that “mission statements” can be viewed with, but without clear language specifying the goals, I’ve seen redesigns flop around like dying fish. Not good. Bringing a cross-departmental group to the table, early, to discuss where are the project is going, and why, is key to a successful reinvention.) As part of this, we spent 90 minutes examining reinvention and “resizing” case studies from around the world; while each redesign can be dramatically different, just taking a look inside the change process itself at other papers (including outtakes of concepts explored along the way) sparks creative connections within each news organization.
  • CONVERSE ABOUT CONTENT: We met in small groups with each department of the newsroom, including copy desk, to talk about what the reinvented newspaper might mean for their sections, their jobs, their readers. (A new sort of spirit to headlines, perhaps? If so, what do we mean by that, who will own this challenge and really make it happen? How soon?) This drove home that the project would not be a cosmetic one, undertaken only by press crew and designers. Everyone needs to take ownership and pride in the future of the paper. (I also attended several budget meetings and story planning sessions, which allowed me to consider how newsroom culture might be improved to create the reinvented paper.)
  • DETAIL DELIVERABLES: We brainstormed a very detailed project timetable, and put down in writing perhaps a hundred or more tasks, with specific assignments and deadlines, to keep the reinvention train on the tracks. Key to this is a specific protocol for typographic experimentation, page prototyping and complete press tests – what types of pages do we want to see, by what date, with what purpose. The timetable can be assessed each week; warning flags can go up if anything is amiss.
  • TIPTOE INTO DESIGN: This visit was more organizational consulting, rather than a design consult per se, so we engaged in limited conversation about logos, fonts, and traditional “design” matters. These can proceed more rapidly and efficiently with a more clear project strategy in place. (Update, February 2012: I have been retained to advise on design components of the project, working closely with Ryan Hildebrandt, creative director of Gannett’s Louisville Design Studio.) Particularly with a dramatic change in format, I cautioned, “more is merrier” when it comes to prototyping. When we converted the San Francisco Examiner a few years ago, from broadsheet to tabloid, I recall we produced perhaps 200 individual page prototypes, and three actual press tests. Press tests ranged from a sampling of the prototype pages (say 20% of a realistic newspaper), to a somewhat complete newspaper (maybe at 50%, perhaps some dummy text and gray boxes for ad shapes), to a sample newspaper that was 95% realistic. The more complete version becomes a terrific teaching tool for the staff of “how it is done,” using real content but improved in terms of story play, headline writing, photo selection, promos and other key elements. How much prototyping and press-testing any newsroom can stomach depends on timetable and available staff resources, of course.

One terrific by-product of our good conversations: last Friday’s newspaper, after two days of “why not? what if?” brainstorming, displayed a noticeably different “spirit,” with bolder display of photographs, more personal approach to caption writing, and more conversational headlines – all things that had been discussed in our workshop sessions. This sort of immediate evidence of change – not waiting until a magical “relaunch day” to present change to readers – is critical to truly making a rethinking project (or reinvention, or redesign if you must call it that) more than simply cosmetic.

* * *

Fun, semi-related fact: for a final project in Pegie Stark’s newspaper design class, circa 1984, I chose to redesign Gannett’s USA Today into a tabloid. I thought then, and I still do 27 years later, that the mission of this paper is best suited to a smaller size, far easier to handle for travelers. (I imagine the paper’s advertising directors through the years would have disagreed on this – in American broadsheet-land, it seems the “bigger is better” mythology has ruled the day.)

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Project Update as of June 2012: The Super Compact project is on track, with the printing of two press tests in the new format, featuring completely remade content and advertising and lots of new thinking about how to improve the presentation of both. Focus groups with the first press test, in April 2012, showed that the new size and shape met with overwhelming approval from current subscribers. A second press test has been printed that will be used for newsroom conversations, about how to most efficiently, and creatively, produce the best content and design for the new format. I am scheduled to revisit the newsroom for two weeks this summer (2012) to present workshops on the spirit of the new paper – teamwork, planning, voice, creativity, and more. Stay tuned …

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About organizational consulting: A number of clients worldwide have sought help not just to redesign their news products, but to redesign the thinking that goes into producing them, via staff training, leadership consulting, and help with strategic planning on reorganization, change in mission, process, or culture. Good collaborative work in these areas can be accomplished via conference call or webinar, or more effectively, site visits from 1-2 days up to several weeks. For a partial list of these clients, link here. To inquire further, or for references, email me at ron (at) ronreason.com

Related and semi-related links:

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3 Comments

  1. Actually, the new size, 10.5 x 14.5, is almost identical to the size of Vero Beach 32963, a 10.5 x 14 Florida weekly newspaper that Ron designed in 2008.

    Readers love it, far preferring it to the traditional sized Scripps daily, and I see no reason why this new size cannot work for the Cincinnati and Columbus papers.

  2. Great to hear from you, Milt, and to see that Vero Beach 32963 is doing well, three years after your launch! Readers may wish to peruse your website where they can find a very clean presentation of digital news, as well as a (free) e-edition of the paper: http://www.verobeach32963.com Congrats, and continued success!

    In addition to your publication, I have designed or redesigned several others in sizes that are extremely similar to the “Super Compact” – these include Nowy Dziennik, the Polish-language daily in New York City, the San Francisco Examiner, and The Standard of Nairobi. Many examples of these designs, all very different in their look and feel, can be found at my case study galleries at this website: http://www.flickr.com/photos/23508068@N03/collections/

  3. Glad to see you’re going to be part of the effort, Ron! This looks like it’s going to be the future, especially with Gannett jumping in.

    Just FYI, I think we’re going to go live in Columbus before Cincinnati with the new format. We will be printing the Enquirer at our production facility. We’re all very excited about the new format here as well. The opportunity is there to really re-think what a daily broadsheet can be and how it should be presented. We’ll have to chat sometime soon. It’ll be interesting to hear your perspective on the new format.

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