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If newspaper markets are so different,
why do most papers look so much alike?


By Alan Jacobson

No one doubts the value of innovation, yet newspapers regularly co-opt each other's formats rather than develop unique solutions for their unique markets. In constrast, when something new and different comes along, it's often a winner (see sidebar). But most redesigns follow the latest industry trends rather than offering something original.

Here are six newspapers without their nameplates. Can you identify them?



It's difficult to name these papers or even tell them apart because each paper uses virtually the same format: left-hand digest, above-the-fold promos, top story stripped, 4-column photo in the middle, etc.

Maybe it doesn't matter how much these papers look alike even if they serve markets as unique and diverse as Dallas, Charleston, Dayton, Portland, Erie and Syracuse.

It matters because they serve Dallas, Charleston, Dayton, Portland, Erie and Syracuse. These markets are unique and diverse – as I'm sure their editors, publishers and readers would say.

These aren't the only papers with look-alike formats. Without their nameplates, most American newspapers have no discernible visual identity. Their nameplates are like handlebar mustaches – the only distinctive thing on an otherwise featureless face.

Does it matter whether all newspapers look alike? Probably not, as long as that one look-alike design is best for every market: north, south, east, west, rich, poor, big and small. What's the likelihood of one format fitting all?

Here are three more papers without their nameplates. I bet you'll recognize all of them.


The New York Times. The Wall Street Journal. USAToday. Each paper has an instantly recognizable design. Each has a unique approach to news that is reflected in their design. Each is successful and their readers love them. (see “Does Design Matter to Readers?”)

Would these papers be as successful if they looked alike? I doubt it – which leads me to believe there are sound jounalistic and business reasons for unique and original approaches to content and presentation.

Remember McPaper? I haven't heard that pejorative sobriquet in years, now that USAToday's readers number in the millions. USAToday may catch a stray jab from a journalism junkie or design dilettante, but the people at the top of the food chain (executive editors and publishers) know that USAToday meets its readers' needs to an enviable degree.

USAToday succeeded because it offered real innovation – it's truly an original. The real McPapers are the ones copying each other.

Newspapers crave innovation but rarely deliver. Every few years a newspaper decides it's time to redesign. They go even further, claiming they've “re-imagined” and “re-engineered” the newspaper. The results more often than not?


Newspapers squander this opportunity to re-invent themselves because their “unique” solutions are often clones from other papers. (see “What newspapers really need to do,”) Time for another quiz:

Here are three more front pages – these from papers that recently redesigned. Can you identify them? (If not, e-mail me and I'll send the answers.)


Each design has clarity, elegant typography and a nice sense of balance. Each page also has a vertical digest, a handful of display stories and a big picture in the middle – just like the six papers at the top with older designs.

I've compared front pages without acknowledging that a newspaper's design is more than the front page. But the front page is the most important page and should be the best page. To those who say it isn't fair to judge a design by its front page, I say if you can't dazzle readers with your front page, don't expect to win them back with Page B6.

To quote Mike Jenner, executive editor of The Bakersfield Californian, "It's time to stop rearranging the deck chairs (on the Titanic)."

That's what he said to me when we began his redesign a little over a year ago. The folks at the Californian really invested in their redesign and took some risks on the most innovative design in America.

The redesign was launched just days ago and it's already paying off. Jenner claims new subscription starts exceed stops by 15-1 and an 8-13% increase in single copy sales. Bakersfield's Classified Ad Manager Sally Ellis says the redesign has brought her a thousand inches of additional advertising.

Originality. Innovation. Change. It just makes dollars and sense.


Bakersfield's bold redesign boosts readership and revenue

The Bakersfield Calfornian launched its visually dramatic redesign on March 1. Early results are overwhelmingly positive.

According to Executive Editor Mike Jenner, subscription starts are up 15-1 over stops and single-copy sales are up 8-13%. Classified Advertising Manager Sally Ellis reports a jump of one thousand additional inches of advertising in the redesigned Real Estate tab.

These numbers are particularly gratifying because Bakersfield's redesign is not typical of the facelifts that most American newsapers undergo. The Calfornian took some risks, choosing change with a capital “C.”

This redesign began more than a year ago with a phone call from Jenner to Brass Tacks Design. Jenner said, “We're not interested in merely rearragning the deck chairs.”

As someone who cares about newspapers and design. this is exactly what I love to hear. The next thing I heard was much more daunting.

“The prototype you deliver should make me saw “Wow.” This admonition came from Richard Beene, president & CEO of The Calfornian, its former editor and Jenner's current boss.

So that was our task – to make a 30-year veteran of the newspaper business say “Wow!” about our proposed changes for his newspaper.

Where do you begin? How do you impress someone who has probably seen it all?

First, you do the research. We reviewed the quantitative research conducted by American Opinion Research (AOR); we gathered qualitative reseach by conducting focus groups on site with readers; we met with all stakeholders in editorial, advertising, circulation and corporate; and we toured the market to see what it looked like to the people living there.

We learned what was unique about the Bakersfield market. This informed our design strategy.
  • Bakersfield is the reddest spot in the bluest state.
  • Bakersfield had the second hottest real estate market in the United States.
  • Families were moving to Bakersfield because it offered some of the most affordable housing in California.
Next we considered the conventional wisdom about newspaper design – and ran in the opposite direction. Here's how the redesign of the Bakersfield Californian (TBC) defied the Conventional Wisdom (CW):

Story play
CW: The most important stories get the best play
TBC: Importance is merely one consideration. Stories that are relevant, compelling and/or interesting deserve equal consideration.

Use of color
CW: Create a color palate of soft, subtle shades that reflect the community
TBC: Liberally splash bright, intense colors across section fronts

Headline typography
CW: Pick a modern interpretation of an elegant, Oldstyle serifed font for headlines, then use a sans serif head on no more than one story per front.
TBC: All heads use a simple sans serif font

Placing main art above the fold
CW: Make sure the main art appears above the fold on fronts
TBC: There's plenty of art in the nameplate and section flags, so there's no need for lead art – above the fold or anywhere else.

Use of photography
CW: Every page should have a dominant element probably a large photograph
TBC: Photos cropped for impact need not be particularly large to communicate

“When we embarked on this project, we set out some important goals,” said Jenner.

“First, we wanted our front page to be striking – even arresting. The new look involves design techniques more commonly found in magazines than in most newspapers, but quality photographs and the ability to print great color are two of our strengths. We think the new approach makes the page more visually appealing.”

“Second, we wanted to address the issues of time-starved readers. More and more readers tell us their lifestyles are busier than ever before. Many aspects of this design address this reality.”

Two months after our initial meetings I returned to Bakersfield armed with nine prototype pages based on nine published pages. We spread the befores-and-afters on the floor of a conference room. Richard Beene walked in at 10:00 a.m. At 10:01 we heard what I traveled coast-to-coast to hear – “Wow!”

Then the real work began – turning this redesign into a reality. We worked with the staff to produce more pages. We built an entire prototype edition, revisiting every editing decision on every page to produce a better Californian.

Then we shared this prototype with focus groups so they could compare an actual, published edition with our new vision for the paper.

Focus groups of advertisers overwhelming preferred the new design. Readers differed in their opinons. Many readers thought the front page had gone too far. Other readers, particularly younger ones, preferred the new design overall. One woman said, “I used to subscribe but I stopped. I'll resubscribe if I can get the paper in this new format.”

That's focus group gold.

Adjustments and improvments to design and content were made during the winter. The new design was launched March 1.

>> e-mail Alan Jacobson