Friday, June 27, 2008

Why Second Floor Should Always Be Lingerie, or Whatever

On a road trip yesterday one of my colleagues told this story: He was at the American Press Institute back in the 1970s or 1980s, and they had put together a reader panel. One of the readers was asked what he considered to be a really well-designed newspaper.

The Wall Street Journal, he replied.

This was in the days when the Journal had an unvarying Page One layout -- lead story in Column 6, off-lead in Column 1, the A-head feature in Column 4 under a graphic, "What's News" in Cols. 2 and 3, and a column like "Market Watch" in Column 5. There were no photos, there was no color. The paper looked the same every day.

So everyone started to inwardly chuckle. The man was asked why he felt this.

I know where everything is every time I read it, he said.

A lot of the fear surrounding redesigns such as Orlando's comes from a sense that if you start moving things around too much, people will simply throw the paper down in disgust. (This can work the same way with home pages, of course, but let's just talk about print for now.) Move things around and the readers will get confused.

Let's go back to our department store. The goods on offer (I love that phrase, picked it up from Lonely Planet) changed with the season, with availability, with holidays. But women's wear was on 2 and 3, housewares on 4, furniture on 5. The structure changed but the specifics did not. It might be summer blouses or winter sweaters, but they were at the top of the escalator.

A newspaper is not bricks and mortar. And newspapers have come far in this area from the pre-USA Today days, when sports might appear on A12 or B6 or C1. But we still overestimate the reader's desire for novelty, because it is linked to our own desire for novelty. How many times do we hear, we can't do that front page, it looks like yesterday's? That clearly did not bother the Journal then and bothers them just a little more today, and it seems as if the Journal in print is going great guns. It doesn't bother the New York Times all that much. It often bothers a lot of us a great deal.

Occasionally the department store would feel it had gotten dowdy and would do, in essence, a redesign. Here bricks and mortar made a difference as opposed to newsprint; part of the store would be closed off for a while, then another. So the store changed bit by bit. (This was a point I think Alan Jacobson made, but perhaps it was someone else -- make your content changes first, then do the redesign.)

But when the new department was done, there would be new signage saying where it was, both in the department and elsewhere in the store. Advertising would herald, "Visit our new Women's World, now on the third floor." There would be a week or two of ads concentrating on the new department and then it would fall to something like "Store hours, including our new Women's World on 3: 9:30 to 5 Monday...." at the bottom of the furniture ads for a couple more weeks before falling off.

Newspapers tend to redesign everything at once, issue in the first day's paper a justification and a "guide to the redesign" (which also can be found online, as if anyone is going to take the physical paper, sit in front of the computer, and go through the tutorial and the paper page by page), and then move on, lest it eat up valuable newshole or we commit the newspaper sin of running something twice. By Wednesday, hey, you're all used to the new paper, right? We are. What can we do on Page One to not make it look like the new redesign looked yesterday? But a whole bunch of your readers are out of town. Or they didn't read the paper that day. Or they weren't looking for the obits that day. When they are, suddenly it's a new world and they have no idea where they are in it. Ooh, let's go online and hit that search button.

An editor I talked with yesterday said that in rethinking, not redesigning, the features section -- his paper really did throw out the old template -- they didn't change much of what Jacobson calls static content and what we call furniture -- the comics, the crossword, the TV listings. Maybe newspapers are finally learning. If you walked into the department store to buy a hat, going through the revolving door with your wet umbrella, you didn't want to walk in and not know where the hat department was. If you were looking for rugs, you tended to be more patient in seeking it out. So if you're looking for sports agate because it's the first thing you look for, you want it to be on Page 3 of sports every day and you want sports to be in the same place. If you're looking for news about furniture, you are more willing to just want a sign that says "News about furniture, this way."

(There was a large department store chain, Mercantile Stores, that into the 1970s had a prohibition against internal signs saying "Men's Wear" or "Notions." I remember this from The Root Store in Terre Haute. [Here's an old photo of the Ohio Street annex.] I asked someone who said it was the chain's policy. I have no idea, I think they thought it made the stores look junky. I also remember they dropped it because it didn't work anymore. People got lost.)

Many European newspapers often run labels page by page saying what sort of news is there, and they try to run the same pages in the same place every day. They could do this more than American papers because they had less advertising. (Well, that's not stopping us now.) But we still have trouble just mastering where things go. I know it's all about color positions and collect runs and the like. Today in one of my local papers, obituaries are on B4 and Business began on the back of the B section and moved backward (like sports in a tabloid). Yesterday obits were on B11 and Business began on B14 and moved forward. Try to explain to a potential young reader why we do this in any phrase other than "it solves our problems." It sure doesn't solve the reader's problem. Things seem much more organized on the Internet. Young readers would have no idea why they should try to use a product that offers new challenges to use every day and assumes you it's up to you to know what we're doing. (Plus, they generally hate broadsheets.)

If on Tuesdays gloves were on the first floor and on Fridays gloves were on the second floor, our department store would be dead. Now most of our traditional department stores are dead, in some cases because they had the same attitude. (Yes, hosiery is on the mezzanine. No, there's no way you would know that. That's just where we had room to put it. No, there's no sign saying where the steps to the mezzanine are. Have you shopped here often?) But there are many bricks-and-mortar successors. Walk into a Kohl's store today. Walk into it six months from now and most things will be in the same place even though the merchandise will have changed seasonally. Walk into a Kohl's store in another city and it will be basically the same. Things will be placed where they are based on Kohl's idea of how shoppers use the store. In the newspaper business, maybe Sports is section C today and section E tomorrow. If Kohl's owned a newspaper, would it be?


Anonymous said...

What really pisses me off about redesigning newspapers is that the redesign wizards don't realize how people "read" their newspaper. Each day, I eviscerate my newspaper, making a pile of sections I am not interested in reading, and throw that stack away. That cellophane package of ads and the TV section in the Sunday paper is the first to go. Then I have a core newspaper that I can handle and read. But when they reshuffle sections, you know how really pissed off I get realizing I just threw away some part of the paper I used to read regularly because it had been moved to one of my throwaway sections. Newspapers are old shoes, comfortable, ugly and a little ragged. You can't make them prettier and you really don't need to because they are useful the way they are.

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