Prototyping a startup newspaper?
Here are 5 free tips to do it right

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[Sample pages from a 28-page prototype of the Rocky shared publicly today. To peruse the entire thing and offer your own opinions, click here.]

[Dec. 9, 2014] Just across the Twitter has come news that “Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz is exploring the possibility of reviving the Rocky Mountain News.” Hurrah, one might think! Someone believes in the power of print to draw readers and advertisers, and in making a dynamic local news market competitive once again. (A late update to the Business Journal story suggests the notion of a Rocky revival may actually be a ploy to negotiate a purchase of the competing Denver Post.)

In an unusual move, those behind the idea have shared a 28-page prototype online, to solicit comments from … well, who is not exactly clear. Online readers of the Denver Business Journal, where the story broke? Certainly in-person focus groups would also be conducted, with live people holding and using the actual product? Let us hope. If the design exists in PDF only, the idea will never advance.

I’ve produced newspaper and magazine prototypes for a couple of decades, including for the San Francisco Examinerwhich Anschutz bought a year after its reinvention as a tabloid, and later sold. (We’ve never met.) And I’ve critiqued others’ prototypes for years, privately, in seminar settings or often, after a client contacts me, not quite satisfied by what an in-house team has produced. But I’ve declined to comment much on my blog about others’ projects in the planning stage, and I do realize this prototype is what I call “wet clay,” and not a product of perfection. But since they’ve put the prototype online, and are seeking feedback, I figured, why not? ‘Tis the season for giving. I really do want all smart newspaper endeavors to succeed.

Here are five free tips for anyone considering creating a newspaper prototype – startup, relaunch or redesign – for private or public consumption:

1. ADVERTISING MATTERS – IN FACT, START THERE

First and foremost, one would imagine that a newspaper startup would live or die on its appeal to advertisers. Readers like advertising, too; it’s information. So why put so much effort into a prototype with not one ad shown? Showing the proposed Denver product to a group of would-be local or national advertisers would be a disaster. They’d literally wonder, what’s in this for us?

Focus groups held just this week for my client Crain’s Detroit Business (relaunching this spring) confirmed that advertisers are interested in branding and content issues, and any editorial changes you have in store – they want to know what type of environment their message will be sitting in. But they also want to know, clearly and quickly: what do YOU have to offer that no other advertising vehicle, in print or digital, can offer? Or, what’s different from what you have offered in print in the past, since I likely have been losing interest in that prospect? The prototype is the first and most important place to draw in advertisers. They want to see their ads, and their competitors’. They especially get intrigued by seeing new advertisers in new positions.

The lessons of starting the modern newspaper redesign with advertising concepts, not editorial, was a lesson I learned well from the successful relaunch of the Chicago Reader. There, Publisher Alison Draper kicked off our project with this directive: “We’ve gotten stale. Advertisers are bailing. We need to create buzz to bring them back and pull new ones on board, and we need prototypes to do this, loud and clear.” (More background on the Reader redesign here.) Here, the Rocky is not only stale, but dead. An excellent prototype is even more imperative.

The Reader project helped me create a new mandate for all of my redesign clients: any prototype must have nicely displayed advertising, in new positions and with smart adjacencies to innovative editorial, and featuring big advertisers who have never been in the paper but need to get on board in order for you to survive. (Yes, it’s a tough order, and a gamble, but it worked at the Reader, with casinos, colleges and museums coming on board with hefty new contracts – all citing the energy they saw in the prototypes and first few weeks of the new paper.)

2. YOU CAN JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER

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Again, I realize this is just a mock issue, but I’d view it as a lost opportunity. Anyone shown the prototype will know what the skyline and beautiful Rockies look like – this design doesn’t advance any cause. The “good morning” message doesn’t need to be on the prototype front page – anyone viewing it would already have gotten the message that the relaunch is under consideration (as in the Business Journal story).

I’ve always advocated prototyping with specific, dynamic and unique stories, either remade from previous issues or in this case, invented from scratch, that are more likely to generate enthusiasm and interest. Maybe show some faces, show action? Hmmm … maybe a kick-ass stock photo of a skier, with a cover headline about the winter ski resort forecast? Just thinking out loud here, but the skyline image says static, and doesn’t give any sense of the news judgment the new publication may sport. (Yes, perhaps they don’t know their tone yet – here, it just seems bland – but sooner rather than later is the time to judge the impact of serious versus sassy. Prototype both, and everything in between, to see what resonates in your market.)

3. BEWARE THE STALE STUFF 

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Regarding content, nobody has all the answers about how to save (or revive) newspapers, but a few things we know for sure:

  • Keep it local or regional (for the most part): No one but the oldest of old readers say they want this much nation and world news in a newspaper. It’s the easy stuff (if you still are paying for a wire service) for a limited staff to template and shovel in, but the least likely to draw interest from local advertisers.
  • Keep it timely. Headlines like these are guaranteed to be 12-24 hours old by the time they are published. They won’t offer anything new and can only contribute to a sense that a news product will be (or has gotten) stale.
  • Keep it personal. The more you can project and analyze how the day’s news will impact someone’s life, in terms of finances, relationships, career, education, etc., the better. Few stories here really show that.

4. SO, WHAT ABOUT DIGITAL? 

Just thinking ahead here. Let’s say there’s some interest in this prototype, especially from local businesses who want it to succeed. (The economy is booming, right? I hope they are there!) They almost certainly will want their print advertising buy to be part of a digital suite of products: web, mobile, social, video, perhaps events. The Rocky will have to offer the same to compete at all with the Denver Post. This is some heavy lifting to imagine for a startup newspaper, but prototyping a few home pages and mobile screens is not. Let us hope they have done it. At least quick mockups of a digital suite may go a long way to say you won’t be an enterprise stuck in 1988. If you don’t launch all the products at once, fine, but tell advertisers where you want to be 1-3 years out.

5. YOU’RE REVIVING A FAILED PRODUCT? WHY? 

Finally, in this particular project, there’s another tall order to prototyping. The market will be well aware that the previous version of the Rocky went under. Anschutz will have a big challenge convincing advertisers that a rebrand will succeed, but a prototype with focus, a distinct identity and noticeable differences from what was offered in the past (or what is offered by the competing Denver Post), would certainly advance his cause. This isn’t that.

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A few other questions I would have about a project like this:

  • MISSION: What’s the mission of this project? Simply trying to revive a product that lived comfortably in the market years ago? That’s what it looks like. Put at least a draft in writing about how this product will be distinct in the market, how it differs from the old Rocky, and why you think it will succeed. Share that along with the prototype.
  • DEMOGRAPHICS: I’d like to know more about what demographics they are going for – if it’s younger readers, all that World and Nation stuff will be a tough sell.
  • CIRCULATION: Will this be free distribution, maybe as a wrap for lucrative circulars (the fate that befell the Anschutz Examiner)? Knowing that would inform the cover design in particular. You need a fresh logo, colors, type and content to entice a reader who never asked for it in the first place. (Such was the assignment in creating a free weekly for DNAInfo in Chicago.) If a brand or product looks bland and uninviting – yes, including the logo – it goes straight from the mailbox or driveway into the trash.

All this said, it was exciting to read about the prospect of a revived or new newspaper in any market, and I do hope to see it succeed. Best of luck to all involved!

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