Deck Chairs On The Titanic
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."
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Posted by: wms | December 4, 2006 5:50 PM
Posted by: Ken Leber Sarasota, FL | December 4, 2006 6:31 PM
Posted by: tabloids in Britain | December 5, 2006 3:59 PM
Posted by: tom rusch | December 6, 2006 12:31 PM
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