Redesigning to sell, not extra copies,
but the publication itself

Shortly after adopting a spiffy new design and spirit, these newspaper titles were sold.

Shortly after adopting a smarter new design and spirit, these newspaper titles were sold.

“Is it worth committing to a redesign if we’re thinking about putting our newspaper or magazine up for sale?” I’ve fielded this inquiry a few times in recent months and thought it would make a good blog post.

Particularly if your publication hasn’t been refreshed in a long while, redesign is something to seriously consider. I’ve come to view the proposition as staging a house for sale – replacing out-of-date carpet, balky kitchen appliances, dirty bathroom grout. Just about everybody concerned will tell you it’s a good investment. Especially if there’s proof that readers and advertisers have reconnected with the publication, as was the case with the Chicago Reader, redesign pays off.  

More than a few of my high-profile clients have sold within a year or two of my redesigns. I’d like to think an attractive new package – combined with new content, new spirit, new brand awareness in the community – helped along their prospects. In several cases, I can say with confidence that the “pre-redesign” look was nothing that would make a buyer cross the street. Of course, there are many factors involved (a close examination of the books, for starters) but who wants to buy anything that looks like a mess? Let’s take a look at some of my redesigns for news publications that soon changed ownership:

San Francisco Examiner: This was one of the most unusual redesigns,  and one of the most fun and (from the design community) best received solutions I’ve worked on. We took the newspaper from an unfocused, flimsy broadsheet and turned it into a scrappy, streetwise tabloid – the first such conversion for a major U.S. metropolitan newspaper. It was no secret that the legendary title had been on death’s door – in order to acquire the larger Chronicle, Hearst Corp. unloaded it on the Bay Area’s Fang family to run for a number of years, greatly subsidized. Toward the end of this deal, we were hired to shake up the format and spirit. Shortly after, the paper went on the block, and was gobbled up by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz (Clarity Media Group). It was later sold in 2011 to San Francisco Newspaper Company LLC. Like Elaine Stritch, “it’s still here.”

Chicago Reader: One of the most influential alternative newsweeklies, the Reader had also fallen on hard times when publisher Alison Draper contacted me for redesign help. A cash machine for years, the paper was sold to Atlanta-based Creative Loafing Inc. in 2007, for, well, way too much money. When the economy took a nose-dive, CL filed for bankruptcy the next year. The paper was awarded to Atalaya Capital Management, to whom Draper reported and committed to deliver a major revamp of format and spirit. Her battle cry to staff: “We’ve gotten stale,” and it’s desperately important we reinvent and wake up our market. It was a lament that I personally heard from longtime advertisers who were reducing or eliminating their contracts with the paper.

In 2010-2011, we worked with staff and new editor Mara Shalhoup to consider bold new ways to tell the market, “we’re still here.” The music section was boldly reinvented as “B Side,” sort of a paper-within-the paper; premium stock was chosen for covers and key inside spreads; new content, partnerships and events sent a message that the paper was looking forward, not back. In 2012, the Chicago Reader was acquired by Wrapports LLC, parent company of Sun-Times Media, where it continues to be a profitable venture, publishing a healthy average of 80 pages a week, as well as a robust digital operation.  (A new commitment to quality ad design was a big part of our prototyping strategy; several years later, some of the most at-risk advertisers are now more visible in the paper than they were pre-redesign.)

Media General Newspapers: When Warren Buffet is enticed enough by your recently redesigned newspapers to gobble them up, wouldn’t you like to think the attractive new look had at least a bit to do with it?  In 2010 I was hired by Media General to redesign its metropolitan newspapers – Tampa Tribune, Richmond Times-Dispatch and Winston-Salem Journal – to share a common look (allowing some distinctive variations in nameplates and other brand elements). The following year,  I was asked to create a similar shared design for the 24 or so smaller community newspapers of Media General. All launches were well received, and in 2012, all the newspaper titles (with the exception of Tampa Tribune) were acquired by BH Media, a subsidiary of Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. In October 2012, The Tribune was acquired by Tampa Media Group, Inc., a new company formed by Revolution Capital Group.

Whether or not you are considering putting your publication up for sale, you still may wish to redesign, and may have other questions. Here’s a good place to continue your search for answers.

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