Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Fort Lauderdale Design

It might kill the paper overnight. Or it might work.

The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel -- excuse me, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel -- oh, hell, it's just called SunSentinel now, so let's go back to Fort Lauderdale -- has unveiled one of the most complete revamps since Peter Palazzo's Chicago Daily News back in the 1970s. That, of course, was a last-ditch effort to save a dying newspaper. (For that matter, so was his groundbreaking work for the Herald Tribune.) The Sun-Sentinel is as challenged as any of us, but is more challenged at the moment by the Zellots' debt load and the collapse of the Florida real estate market than by its own competitive issues.

Charles Apple's Visual Editors did an incredibly long look at the new SunSentinel. (It's incredibly long, so don't go there unless you want to see page after page -- but they're juicy pages.) But to excerpt from the comments of design director Paul Wallen:

..."It was becoming increasingly clear that incremental change wasn’t really going to be enough to connect with the younger and occasional readers that we were trying to reach. ..."

The New Futurist would respond: They're never going to read the paper anyway. Just give it up. Any change involving print is incremental.

"We’re trying to reach out to a very specific audience, the people who don’t read us often enough now. Readers in the 30-49 age group, time-starved readers, occasional readers. These people tell us they don’t have enough time to read the paper, that they have trouble finding the content they’re interested in and don’t want to work so hard to find it. So we really focused on things like navigation, readability and opening up the spacing for more of an 'easy to read' feeling. The thought is that if we can get these people to read us just once or twice a week more than they do now, that would add up to a big impact. ... Every decision has been made with readers in mind, in an effort to make the paper easier and more fun to read. If we’ve done our job well enough and kept our focus on the reader experience, I’d like to think the recoiling in horror should be kept to a minimum."

Fun! Less time! Easy to find! How many decades have we heard...

"Look, we understand that some people don’t like change. And there is a certain segment of any audience, including ours, made up of traditional readers. They might have been fine with, or even preferred, for us to just keep doing things the same old way. But by almost any measure you use — circulation, readership, focus groups, whatever — what we’re doing now is not working for enough people. To me, the scariest thing of all is not changing because there’s no doubt that’s a road to failure."

The old curmudgeon would respond: Who cares if it's not working? We're doing everything right. We deserve better customers. Failure in a righteous cause is not failure.

"I also personally reject the idea that a newspaper has to be dense and boring in order to deliver the news. The SunSentinel has lots of great content, we don’t apologize for making it easier for readers to enjoy it or for presenting it in a visually sophisticated way.

"Content is more important than ever. There’s nothing about this redesign that squeezes out news. I’m sure a few people will say that because we’re trying some different approaches in how we deliver that news. I expect criticism because we’re trying to do something different. Frankly, if we don’t get criticism, that will tell me we didn’t change enough.

"But we’re really just trying to do a better job giving readers what they tell us they want.
How long have studies shown that readers don’t like jumps and often don’t follow them? Why haven’t we tried harder to address that as an industry? We’re trying to do something about that.
"Readers keep telling us they don’t have time for the paper. Shouldn’t we do something to make it feel a little faster and easier to use?

"Time after time, focus groups tell us they weren’t even aware of something in the paper that they would have been very interested in. Should we ignore that and keep building dense pages so that we can feel good about cramming in as much as possible?"

The old curmudgeon says: The readers should adapt themselves to the product we produce. It is our job to produce it and it is their job to receive it. We produce it with the noblest of intentions. It is its own reward.

Broward/Palm Beach New Times -- it's interesting how the alt-weeklies have become the Old Curmudgeons when it comes to newspaper criticism -- didn't like it much. But I found most interesting this exchange in the comments:

"But I have a legitimate, non-judgmental question for The Pulp and for the other vocal neigh-sayers who have slammed everything about this redesign: What should a daily newspaper look like in 2008?

"Just playing devil's advocate here, but it seems as if no one has liked any of the changes that the S-S (with or without hyphens) has attempted during the previous couple of years, either.
So, what should they be doing?

"If the S-S has been getting things so wrong, then what is the right approach?

"I'm just curious about what people think a contemporary newspaper should look like in the early 21st century."

To which came this answer:

"You wanted to know what a newspaper should 'look like' in the early 21st century. Answer: pretty much exactly like newspapers looked at the end of the 20th Century. Yes -- just like the print New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and the Financial Times (... you can skip over the heavy-duty financial info and spend all of your time on their international news reporting).

"And yes, let us bow our heads and remember the days when the Miami Herald was almost as good as the Washington Post was... (say, around the time of the Miami Riots in May 1980)..."

The O.C. settles back with a sign and concludes: We were right then, so doing the same thing has to be right now. We did not have to worry back then about making readers want to buy our product. They just bought it. It was a better world. And the N.F. says: Just get these people out of the freaking way so we can get on with the future!

Back to Paul Wallen:

"We’re going to worry more about the people who will get it than the few who won’t."

Well, either they will or they won't. Let's see what happens. No matter how you feel about it, give them props for trying.

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