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Deck Chairs On The Titanic

Frank Ahrens

Today, the Wall Street Journal unveiled a bold, new design for its paper that looks, well, quite a lot like the current Wall Street Journal.

Oh, purists will notice that the "A-head" feature -- the usually quirky story in the middle of the front page underneath the line that looks like a bracket -- has been moved from the top of the page to halfway down. (Writing that feature is one of the more coveted jobs in newspapering.)

And they will notice that the front-page news summary has been moved -- shocking! -- to the far left two columns. And that the front page will be narrower, and in a five-column, as opposed to a six-col....what? I just lost you? Then I guess you don't want to hear my extended dissertation on fonts.

Look, I'm not going to make too much fun of the Journal's redesign because here at The Washington Post, we went through months of discussion and hand-wringing and mock-ups before we decided it would be too jarring to put a "rail" (like our Sports, Metro and Business sections have on the left side of their front pages) on The Post's front page. It would have been easier, and faster, to get a U.N. security council resolution passed.

The point is, readers tend to notice and respond to radical changes. How do we know?

Here's a survey by NewsDesigner, a blog that examines newspaper design. It shows what happened to 10 declining-circulation U.S. newspapers after they redesigned.

Short answer: Circulation continued to decline. At a couple of the papers, it fell off the table; redesign actually appears to have harmed their circulation.

In Britain, however, when four papers switched from broadsheet-size (like The Washington Post) to tabloid-size (like the New York Post), circulation shot up. Or spiked up and down wildly. The point is, it did something -- it got readers to sit up and take notice.

Sure, there are contextual factors to take into account with this study: How significant were the redesigns? Were they any good? Were they promoted? And what, if anything, did they do to revenue?

But, in truth, those points remind me of the phrase once used to describe Washington D.C.: "Except for the murders, it's a safe city." Redesigns cost a ton of money and make a ton of money for the designer; in the Journal's case, Mario Garcia, who redesigned virtually every paper in the country, it seemed, in the late '80s and '90s and is probably single-handedly responsible for the proliferation during that era of the salmon-colored screen used to highlight info boxes in papers. Garcia is a genius at what he does -- I took a couple of seminars from him -- but I think the industry's problems may be too big for his ample intellect and energies.

Or, as one reader commented on the NewsDesigner site: "If these graphs could make noise, that noise would sound a lot like the scraping sound made by the shuffling of deck chairs on the Titanic."

By Frank Ahrens  |  December 4, 2006; 4:13 PM ET  | Category:  Frank Ahrens
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Reminds me of failing restaurants that remodel the dining rooms in hopes of stimulating business. Never thinking, of course, to try serving good food....

Posted by: wms | December 4, 2006 5:50 PM

Don't knock the WSJ. They do seem to have fair and balanced editorials.
See their editorial today, "Global Warming Gag Order". Its about an over-the-top letter to ExxonMobile from Senators Jay Rockefeller and Olympia Snowe.
Note they also have a web site, but even subscribers to the paper do not have access unless they also subscribe on the internet.

Posted by: Ken Leber Sarasota, FL | December 4, 2006 6:31 PM

Tabloid-sized is much easier to read (in terms of the smaller, non-folded pages) making it a much better choice for tightly packed commuters. In fact, throughout Britain, free dailies like the Metro are getting to be more popular than subscription papers because they're easy to read aboard a train or bus, contain a succinct mix of national and global news, entertainment, and sports, and since they're free you don't feel guilty leaving them behind on the train for someone else to read.

Posted by: tabloids in Britain | December 5, 2006 3:59 PM

this comment is a bit of an oblique reflection on your thoughts about the redesign of the WSJ.

i get most of my news from the internet. (we still subscribe to the Sunday edition of our local newspaper, probably because my wife doesn't go to work that day and enjoys reading the paper and clipping coupons with her coffee. and i actually pick up the Friday edition of the WSJ most weeks because i like the crossword puzzle.)

what's beginning to bug me are sites/articles that don't have printable text, instead substituting slide shows or videos.

i get my news from the internet, but i still like to 'read' it. so i print out the articles that i want to read later in the day.

maybe i'm part of the 'transition' demographic, those who are familiar enough with technology to look for news and information on the internet, but old-fashioned enough to want to sit in a chair and read the information in the old way!


Posted by: tom rusch | December 6, 2006 12:31 PM

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