Production hubs and newspaper redesigns: Project management advice

In the last few years, the bulk of my consulting work has come from redesign projects for newspaper “hubs,” or centralized staffing centers where shared templates (with, perhaps, a controlled amount of customization) allow for streamlined production. First off was a shared design created for the three large “metro” newspapers of Media General, in Tampa, Richmond and Winston-Salem. Later was a separate shared design for about 24 small to medium papers in the chain, along the east coast. This year brought work with the Cincinnati Enquirer, whose designs are produced by a centralized Gannett hub in Louisville. (See blog post on this project’s debut March 11, 2013.)

It’s a topic that generates a lot of interest, and the occasional inquiry along the lines of: How the heck does this work? I thought I’d share a sampling of the most common questions about redesigning for hubs, as received via email, at speaking engagements, while on site with clients, etc.  

Question: How do we manage such a project, which likely straddles very different newspaper titles, editors, and states? Where to even start? 

Answer: First off, realize that, probably moreso than a design challenge, this is a challenge of administration, strategy, leadership/management, and communication. If seeking a consultant, make sure to ask, specifically: what experience do you have in these areas, in addition to creating solid design solutions? How are you in dealing with difficult or delicate egos? As you look at your staffing, ask: Is everyone from the top down following a clear directive as to why you are doing this? Is it clearly understood and signed off on? The very most important aspect of this is, do your editors in the various offices fully agree that there is a common good to a shared design (i.e., financial survival for all), or, will they go kicking and screaming into the process?

Bluntly, their priorities need to be reassigned, from the highest levels. If before they micro-managed their paper’s design (perhaps with good reason), it’s important to acknowledge that “that was then, this is now.” I have advised top project managers to be very direct with regional editors, and say: Thank you very much for your design interests through the years (even perhaps awards and accolades); now, we need you to focus on content, managing the staff and budget, improving the process. We’ll handle the design over here. Does this mean they will have NO impact on how “their” new design takes shape? No, but, if they turn out to be bitter pills who throw tantrums if someone wants to take away their favored pull-quote style (don’t laugh, I’ve seen it), they need to be kicked to the curb, at least in terms of their involvement in the project. It’s a needless waste of time to stroke egos like this, and your project will be derailed.  As I said: leadership/management.

From here there are other questions such as: Do you have the staffing to produce the extensive prototypes that a large number of people will wish to review? What new thinking might be needed to allocate enough time for them to contribute? They might be able to do part of the work, but maybe they need a mentor or advisor sort of consultant to keep things moving along. As you prototype the shared template, you’ll also want to consider prototyping “the system” that produces it – the staffing, the workflow, the communications required. It’s tough stuff (but fun if you do it right).

Question: We know from an economic standpoint that we need to consider a shared design. But we fear the wrath of the editors in various states, who do not want to give up control of their design. How do you deal with this sticky wicket?

Answer: See above, but let me elaborate. Editors have a far, far more inflated opinion of the value of a “distinct design” in their marketplace than any reader ever did. No studies have shown a decline in circulation (or reader engagement, or profits) due to headline fonts being changed to Times and Helvetica. To hell with that old-school thinking. Readers care about readability of their paper, organization of the information, and relevance and truth of the content. Period. If the very survival of the paper appearing on their doorstep is in jeopardy, by God, create a more simplistic, functional, easy to produce look, and move on.

Question: Can’t we just take the strongest elements from our best paper(s) and fashion that into the template for the group?

Answer: Proceed with caution. Some chains do have at least one or a few very solid papers, whose designs can be adapted into one template to be used by the others. But beware creating a Frankenstein monster. For the Media General metro newspapers, one of the first things I did was analyze the fonts licensed to all the papers, and consider whether what they already owned could be put to good use. It could and we did. Primarily, we took a very strong serif family from one paper, and a strong sans from another, and combined them artfully. We selected a more efficient body text for all three to adopt, as pages and story elements would need to swap out among the papers in a complex way. It happened to be a great solution, for them, but not all chain newspapers might have these kinds of fonts.

Question: Isn’t a share look a generic look? Even though times are tight for the business, we want to maintain high design standards for our brands.

Answer: To consider this question, look to the web. Don’t most websites share a similar set of basic fonts, the user default fonts located within a web browser or PC? Though more type customization has been going on with time, for the most part, web readers are used to a limited set of type solutions. The thing that matters to them? Finding the information they need, quickly. There are two things to address when we talk about a unique vs. generic look:

  1. the “distinction” you might create with your non-type design elements. Regardless of the fonts, you will have questions of your grid, the use of rules, color backgrounds, white space, and of course, logos and labels. All of these can add great distinction, even if Times and Helvetica are your head fonts. A skilled consultant, or in-house designer, will know how to work magic with these non-type ingredients. 
  2. the art of the centerpiece. Whether on a news cover, an inside spread, or feature front, your centerpiece can really be the thing that “pops” for the reader. Here you go beyond design, and redesign, really, and into art and photo direction – assigning, and placing, a dynamic, well cropped and sized piece of art, with an impactful, smart headline will take you far. 
Question: What about the “sense of place” we’ve always felt our paper has had, and needs? Poynter always taught that this was important. 
Answer: Fine – keep your original logotype on page one. But the days of a finely tuned design keyed in on the “history of place,” if it ever had any relevance, are really gone beyond that. Sorry to say this to the purists! We even considered very different promo styles for all the Media General papers, to allow this sense of uniqueness in each markets, then realized that it was just too much work, and didn’t make sense to design six different promos to “Who Wore the Hot Dress at the Grammies?” What nonsense. Create a modular promo style where one paper might use one promo, another might use three smaller promos, but don’t allow complete freelancing for elements like this. Doesn’t make sense with limited staffing.

Question: Isn’t a template the death of creativity?

Answer: Not at all. See previous, but with any redesign, especially for a hub, management needs a clear directive (or re-directive, as I’ve called it) to get staff to stop dickering around with design elements that really do not matter, and focus in a renewed way on the story selection, headline writing, choice of visuals, etc. Content, content, content. That’s the thing that needs to be creative — not the caption or byline style.

Question: What are some of the pitfalls of designing for hubs?

Answer: Pitfalls vary wildly from place to place, but here are a few I’m happy to share:

  • Poor understanding of project management. A redesign of one newspaper is a huge management challenge – tasks, timetables, deadlines, project communications, marketing. Multiply this by 24 if that’s how many papers you have and the potential for nightmare is enormous.
  • Failure to grasp the importance of stylebook and style sheets. With users across platforms, and perhaps with wildly different skill levels, it’s important to create design styles that are easy to learn and use. From the earliest stage of prototyping, ask: Is each element suited to the task at hand, and practical from a production standpoint? If an infobox can be created using three keystrokes (or pulled off a library) instead of a sexier version with 14, as I actually saw with one client, then pursue the option with more simplicity. This may not please the design purists in the room, but at the end of the day, literally, the important thing is getting the paper out the door.
  • Creating centerpiece designs – to maximize flair in the final product – that are too complex for a pagination system to handle. From the start, you need to know what your machines can do, and live by those limitations. System too limited? Fine – perhaps design the mast promos on a Mac, in Indesign, and import as a JPG – but keep in mind this will slow down your process, perhaps considerably. As with every decision, here you ask: Is it worth it?
Have a question about hubs, redesigns, or any related topics? Feel free to email me at ron (at) ronreason.com and I’ll get back to you soon, and possibly consider updating this post.
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