newspaper design
classified design
web design
online design
newspaper redesign
classified redesign

From DESIGN, Spring 1999

So you want to redesign your newspaper?

Advice to the agent of change

By Alan Jacobson, Brass Tacks Design

So you want to redesign your newspaper. Or perhaps just ditch those Bookman Semi-Bold Italic Swash section flags, the ones that give you daggers of pain when you crack open the paper each morning.

Well, good for you. Good for you, partner. Attaboy. It if makes the paper better, well, heck, it's worth the hassle of switching things around a bit, interrupting the routine. I say get to it.

But before you do, know one thing: The above five sentences will be the only encouragement you'll get over the next several weeks, or months, or however long it takes you to make your design dream a reality. Assuming it becomes a reality.

That's right: Weeks from now you'll think back to those five sentences, and you'll weep with gratitude that someone - maybe just a faraway stranger writing in a magazine but someone - understands you and your lofty, altruistic goals.

Maybe you'll e-mail me with something like, "You don't know me, but I feel that we've known each other for years," or: "Dear Alan: Won't you be my spiritual and professional mentor, my guide in all things, please?"

I will regard your missive with a wise, sweet kindness in my eyes. The kind of look I get when I know you've learned what I already knew, that when you bring change to your paper, you bring big change to the life of everyone around you. And that most changes of this magnitude - how best to put this? - suck.

But most of this pain is avoidable, so pay attention. We're only going through this once.

I have been where you are now - fresh-faced, filled with idealism, confident that you've hit upon an idea for change that stands to make a real difference. Certain that your colleagues will recognize that. Hoping - expecting, really - that accolades will follow. Promotions. Public speaking engagements. Book contracts. Big fat piles of money.

Well, maybe I wasn't exactly where you are now. But we have in common the fact that I overlooked a nasty little facet of bringing change to the workplace. I didn't realize that just about everyone would try to talk me out of it. That just about everyone would resist it. That just about everyone would hate it.

Just plain didn't see it coming.

I work at a newspaper, I thought to myself. This is an outfit that reinvents itself every day. Change is constant here. Ergo, my fine design proposals will be eagerly embraced, for they will make our paper so much better, and what the hell - it's just another change, right?

Alas. It was not so.

What I hadn't considered was that to do the impossible - to write and edit and size and headline and design an almost unfathomable amount of completely new material every day - the paper's staff relied on routines. A few editors fretted that messing with those routines even a little - like, to introduce a design change - wasn't worth the huge headache it would cause.

Unfortunately, even more of my colleagues didn't want to deal with any change in the routine simply because they disliked change.

They had fooled me into thinking they liked it, because I could see that they juggled change just fine in the papers they produced each day. But they couldn't stand it in their personal lives.

That hardly made them freaks. "There is no more delicate matter to take in hand," Machiavelli observed, "nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful of success, than to step up as a leader in the introduction of change.

"For he who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well-off under the existing order of things," he wrote, "and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new."

And what he said goes double for newsrooms. You're surrounded by smart, fast-thinking, world-savvy editors who talk a good game about wanting to do right by the reader and can justify how they spend their time with glib aplomb.

It's tough to talk them into the notion that what they're doing isn't already the best it can be. They work hard. They work long hours. They use a lot of brain power to get the job done. The paper's already great. Heck, it has to be.

That's what you're up against, and that's on top of what Machiavelli talked about - that deep in your editors' brainstems, beyond all that reader-friendly rhetoric, lurks their most primeval, most feral impulses, the leftovers from eons of struggle in cave apartments and fur bikinis. The basest of all: Change bad. Hate change. Kill change.

Sex and eating are way down the list.

What's a designer to do? How on earth can you punch through all the inertia - that's putting it diplomatically - to get a redesign rolling?

Simple. You have to acquaint yourself with that pesky bottom line.

I can hear the groans now, but listen up. We all have a choice to make in this age of bean-counter management: Make changes in the news operation that reflect what our customers want, and thereby increase readership, or stand idly by until the accountants upstairs decide to do it for us.

Both involve change, of course, but believe me, the second is far more painful than the first. So it behooves you, bucko, to start thinking like a businessman, if only to keep the businessmen at arm's length.

Before you propose a redesign to the editors, you'd better be sure that it addresses your customers' needs. Better be certain that you can explain exactly how it'll make the paper friendlier to its readers, more accessible, more predictable, whatever - and how that improvement should translate into reader happiness.

What this requires, of course, is knowing who your customers are and what they want. How do you do that? You go to your paper's marketing folks and ask to see the market research. When I begin any redesign, this is my first step: I ask my client for the research, he hands it over, and as my uncle puts it, I then set about finding a way to use my client's watch to tell him what time it is.

Chances are you'll be amazed by the information the paper has on hand about its readers, and about the folks in the community who aren't subscribing. Put this information to use. Establish a link between your proposed changes and increased reader happiness. Justify your design with the numbers.

The suits love that. They know, far better than we do, that embarking on any journalistic venture that doesn't deliver some demonstrable plus to the reader is a waste of time, even if it wins tons of awards from other journalists. Maybe especially so.

So pepper 'em with the figures. If you can demonstrate that your changes would make the paper better for readers and easier to sell to irregular buyers, the bosses will figure the rest of the equation: Readership increases. Circulation gains. Advertising rate hikes. More money.

Which will prompt them to get all enthusiastic about your idea. Which will prompt lower-ranking editors, eager to please their bosses, to be somewhat enthusiastic. Which probably won't bring the reporters, photographers and copy editors on board - what does? - but might at least get them thinking that this design proposal of yours isn't simply artistic narcissism.

Actually, they'll probably still think that, but they'll be forced to go along with your plan. At which point the real tough stuff will begin - the short-handed staffs pulling double shifts, the front-end system crashes, the low morale, the lousy pizza that accompanies every redesign.

But eventually, after countless hours of toil, that first edition of that first redesigned paper will come rolling off the presses, bright and crisp and beautiful.

To some of your colleagues, you'll still be the antichrist. But to many more you'll be the person who gave the reporters, photographers, artists, designers and editors better tools to do better journalism. And if you truly listened to your readers, your paper will be more compelling, interesting, relevant, informative, efficient and entertaining.

And that's why you did it. Right?