[Update: Since this blog post was first published in 2010, some design elements of The Stranger may have changed, but the spirited visual mission has not. Find lots of fun new links celebrating the paper’s 25th anniversary at the bottom of this post. To be clear, this was not one of my redesign projects; rather, it’s among publications I have admired for a while, and have discussed with my students and clients. Happy birthday, Stranger! – RR]
My client newspapers do not always find it helpful for me to just show up and offer my No. 1 piece of consultatory advice: “Stop being so boring,” bop them over the head (Dogbert-style) with a rolled-up newspaper, and leave. They say: Ron, we want specifics. We want role models to aspire to.
I share crazy ideas from other clients, like when I got the San Francisco Examiner (which was on death’s door at the time, surprisingly, still in business) to turn its back page Sports section upside down. You know, flip the paper over, so you can read the pages logically, sequentially, instead of backward, like other daily tabs, and so it can be displayed near stadiums or sports bars with the appearance of a free-standing magazine. (Sneer if you like, but people talked about it, and a year later the paper was sold for a fortune, to that Denver billionaire! Somewhere, a Chinese publishing dynasty is rolling around laughing in big piles of cash! The idea was also adopted, and adapted, by clients in New York City, Nairobi and Dubai.) Work I have done for the mafia seems to be especially popular, as well.
I also share ideas picked up in my travels. In today’s column, I present a curated potpourri of cool things observed in the print edition of The Stranger, Seattle’s venerable alt-weekly, in hopes that other papers who read this might become less boring, draw new readers and advertisers, and better serve their communities. Editor Christopher Frizzelle and his staff obviously know how to do it, care about the details, and look like they’re having great fun. (“It’s true that it’s a marvelous place to work – best job on the West Coast, I always say,” he emailed to say.)
Culled from three issues picked up while speaking at an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies convention in Toronto, please enjoy these 7 Random Things I Love About The Stranger. Click to enlarge any image for more detail. MSDs (mainstream dailies) in particular, please note: This column is NSFBN*
Even their house ads are snarky, buzzy, informative and fun.
Well maybe not always, but check this out, for their nightclub iPhone app, called Cocktail Compass. (Not “Nightlife Planner App” which a lot of other papers would call it. Pffft.) “Easy to use, even with Drunkie-Fingers ™!” (See earlier blog post: Does your newspaper’s marketing suck? Probably.)
They give enough of a shit about their columnists to brand them, with mug shots.
In one issue I counted 13 columns that sported mug shots of the writers. (OK, one of them was just the mouth of the restaurant critic, but still counts; and 1 was a photo of Jean-Luc Picard atop an Onion-like fake column, but the rest are legit, including brand stalwart Dan Savage, Stranger editorial director and sex columnist). This puts a face to the paper’s expertise and counters the generic, syndicated feel that a lot of papers have taken on. Why have so many papers gotten away from this? Lack of confidence in their brand? Ugly writers? Lack of space? (Loved how the columns were often kept short, too. The music section had five columnists, each given one column of space: 5-6 paragraphs, tight writing, gets the reader in and out. Why does this short format work? Each writer covers a niche. Nice relief from the “hey look, I can type!” school of columning, where the reader is assaulted by a sea of gray (usually too-small) type.
They talk with, and back at, their readers.
The paper kicks off each edition with a hilarious missive from Public Editor A. Birch Steen, who proves that the conservative and spirited ruminations of T. Herman Zweibel may be gone from the hallowed halls of newsprint, but not forgotten. Also dig the new take on “letters to the editor” (above): smart and fun curated comments from the paper’s website, reactions to one specific topic covered previously – in this case, an argument about where to get the best fried chicken. Note the unique, buzz-y name – “No, You Shut Up” – not “Reader Feedback.” (Newspaper as conversation, not lecture.) Super bonus: “Illustrated comment of the week.” I rarely see stuff like this cartoon in other MSD’s or even much in the alt weeklies. Let’s assume this was free and unsolicited. Why wouldn’t it happen more at other papers? Because, maybe, they don’t inspire the passion in readers to volunteer their energy and efforts as such?
And LOVED this note from the editors, about why they accepted the accompanying, and controversial, anti-gay ad in the paper’s Pride issue. Says: We’re telling you what’s going on internally, gentle reader, we’re stoking the fires of debate, AND we’re making money! Journalism + activism + marketing + buzz = Huzzah!
Calling all design nerds, and nerds who love newsprint, reading, or living: See this terrific online collection of Stranger covers from back issues. Click on links to the artists who provided the visuals, and hire them. And holy crap, I had a design-gasm over this particular cover, just a beautiful, sad illo of an oil-soaked seabird by Aaron Bagley after BP’s horrific gulf spill. Nothing better than a cover that makes a reader gasp: I WANT THIS! Freaking gorgeous, and even better, proceeds were donated to National Wildlife Federation. Yes. This. Is. Why. We’re. Here. (See additional covers selected to celebrate the paper’s 25th anniversary.)
Smart writing, well designed.
[People, I warned you, this column is NSFBN*.] Edmund White! Susie Bright! Nothing speaks to smart readers like smart (and fun) writers, but the design of this multi-page spread was also literary and inviting. (Clean type! White space! Monster drop caps!) The cover story, from the paper’s recent Pride issue, was “Republicans I Have Fucked” – a specific, new, captivating take on an annual topic that otherwise is often given a tired treatment (“what being gay means to me,” “how I came out,” etc.) Read the stories here.
(Note to my readers from MSDs: skip over the next item, please. I know this one won’t fly in a family newspaper. Read it, weep, and focus on the rest of this blog post.)
Super-fun and buzz-y marketing events.
What’s not to love about sponsoring an amateur porn contest? Only giving away a date with the hottie with the sexy/cheese-tastic mustache, or the banana-licking gal (if you like that kinda thing), could raise the temperature on this one. (Want to enter? Go here.) The film shorts are shown during several sell-out nights in Seattle, Portland and other cities – a great, unconventional income stream for the paper.
Small details that show they live there, care about the place, want to brag it up.
Check out the music venue “Poster of the Week.” A lovely and fantastic portion of one small column, and a great nod to the poster artists working in the city. (Inspired by this feature, and talks with my former office/gallery assistant, gig poster superstar Justin Santora, I convinced the Chicago Reader to adapt this idea during our 2011 redesign there. My only regret is that they passed on the chance to be more visually provocative, but that’s a long story for another day.)
Why don’t more newspapers curate their cities like this? Here’s why: I share ideas like this all the time, and identify specific new ones suited to my mainstream daily clients in particular. And I am greeted by a blank stare and someone says, that’s great Ron, but we have no one to do that. To gather the posters. Photograph them. Type in the information. (30 words.) People! It takes like 5 minutes. Find a clerk who haunts the music scene, they’d love to do this. What’s the missing link? A sense of ownership. Passion. A big heaping dose of “we give a shit.” Too bad.
A few more things worth mentioning …
Digging … that The Stranger still prints the taller format tab size. So much more sleek and inviting than the squatty, smaller square size that most others have had to adopt. (Related.) … that they print one sheet on heavy white stock, inserted about a dozen pages in (March 25 issue, anyway). Why? Coupons. So much more reader (and advertiser) friendly to offer coupons on heavier stock than on newsprint…. that a secret message is printed along the spine each week (hey! brings out the kid in all of us!) … I could go on and on.
* * *
The Stranger is captivating and fun to read, and looks like it would be so cool to work for. The visuals are diverse, the story topics are unique, the local news coverage is strong (4-5 substantial stories in just about every issue, with a strong news blog, updated daily), headlines are lively and surprising and filled with attitude. (See previous blog posts about our relaunch of Creative Loafing, where I ask: “Is your newspaper a lecture, or a conversation? A press release, or a party?”) Sadly, I don’t find this spirit very much in the many newspapers I review regularly, especially the MSDs, certainly not often in papers that I pick up at random. I don’t accept the argument that the crazier stuff “might fly in Seattle, but we’re in Des Moines,” or wherever. Every city should be fun and interesting to live in, on some level, and every paper should work harder to reflect this. Headlines, house ads, covers and columns should not be boring. It’s not a design thing, it’s a spirit thing. It’s not the fonts, it’s the funk.
* Not Safe For Boring Newsrooms.
Related and unrelated links:
- The Stranger’s website. NEW LINKS celebrating the paper’s 25th anniversary, in October 2016: A celebration of terrific covers through the years. An oral history of the paper’s first year. The paper’s sexy, unruly visual language.
- An alt weeklies wish list, from my visit to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies conference in Toronto.
- More ideas to give your paper more zip (also inspired by AAN).
- Behind the scenes of my 2011 Chicago Reader redesign, a process somewhat inspired by studying the Stranger.
- Follow Ron Reason on Twitter.
- Redesigning your magazine or newspaper? Start here.
- The mother ship, Ron Reason News Design.
- Find the photo of a midget in Dubai wishing my mom a happy birthday.