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November 01 2010

16:00

Getting lapped by innovation abroad? Mario Garcia’s path to better designed newspapers

In seeking out inspiration for its print redesign, Canada’s Globe and Mail didn’t look south of the border, as one might expect. Instead, the national daily focused its gaze overseas, pilfering design tips from newspapers in southern Europe, Latin America and Asia. Editor-in-chief John Stackhouse went so far as to call the U.S. market “fairly depressed in terms of newspaper innovation.” It doesn’t get more blunt than that.

Not to flog a dead horse, but newspaper design guru Mario Garcia reported a similar sentiment back in 2008, this time from an anonymous Indian editor expecting to ooh and ah while touring American newsrooms. The editor was less than impressed.

“I am disappointed, to be honest,” he told Garcia. “I went to the U.S. to learn, to get ideas on how to improve our newspapers here, but in every case, I was faced with newspapers that are hardly innovative. Why are American newspapers less willing to experiment, to take that leap into the future, to analyze their products and to adapt them to the realities of a multi-platform world?”

To be fair, that was two years ago and major dailies are, slowly but surely, becoming multi-platform vehicles. Still, the disappointment expressed by Stackhouse and the Indian editor speaks to what Garcia calls the general dearth of innovation in American newspaper design. For whatever reason — financial difficulties, tradition, sacred cows — American design innovation has stagnated. (For the record, design consultant Ron Reason is more optimistic than Garcia on the point.)

“When you look at newspaper design overseas — like Spain and Latin America — they’re much more adventurous, much more interesting, much more magazine-like,” Newsonomics author (and Lab contributor) Ken Doctor says. “It’s all about presentation; there’s a visual surprise.”

The surprise, however, has more to do with information architecture — how papers structure headlines and sections — rather than color and typography. “Pure design is just cosmetic,” Garcia told me last week. “It’s not going to solve the problem.”

Garcia, a sort of newspaper-design Carmen Sandiego, has consulted newsrooms in over 96 countries, including Hong Kong, where he’s currently working with the South China Morning Post, and Colombia, where he recently helped re-launch the Bogotá-based El Tiempo, which he chronicles, step-by-step, on his blog in refreshing and lengthy detail.

Garcia readily admits the continued (and often growing) interest in print overseas has given foreign newspapers some of its room to innovate. American editors are “plagued by a sense of malaise, that print is going to die,” Garcia says. Foreign newspapers, on the other hand, take a more carefree approach: As circulation increases, why not take some risks? The outcome might be a fresher, more navigable newspaper. “American newspapers think of death and dying; foreign newspapers think of birth and renewal,” Garcia says.

Over the course of our interview, Garcia laid out some design innovations popping up in the foreign market, citing the United Arab Emirates’ Gulf News, which devotes an entire, editor-run page to online citizen journalism, and New Delhi’s Hindustan Times, which reaches its millions of readers by publishing nearly 20 regional editions. It’s as if The New York Times ran an edition for each of New York’s five boroughs.

Foreign newsrooms, he argues, are well attuned to the newspaper’s role in the online/mobile/print/tablet nexus. Papers are usually considered supplementary, rather than top-dog, all-that-matters news sources. Here are three ways Garcia sees international newspapers innovating design:

Information architecture comes before design

In its redesign, El Tiempo eschews traditional sections in favor of a more guided approach. The paper splits into three sections: Debes Saber (What you must know); Debes Leer (What you must read); Debes Hacer (What you must do).

Debes Saber covers local, national, world, sports, and business news. Garcia describes it as the “kitchen,” where you hastily gather news over your morning coffee. Debes Leer, the “living room,” provides opinion and analysis; it’s the newspaper’s salon, a more leisurely, end-of-the-day read. Debes Hacer, the “outdoors,” covers health, fitness, food, and fashion.

Garcia writes in his blog that he was “thinking like a reader” when he sat down to help overhaul El Tiempo. Indeed, El Tiempo’s compartmentalization gets to a news consumer’s most basic needs. “It’s about how you get the content flowing better for people who have less time,” Garcia says.

Respect the cult of personality

“People desire to hear the opinions of others, even if it’s nonsense,” Garcia says. Analysis should be on the front page, not reserved for back-page editorial sections. English-language weekly The Moscow News, which will be relaunched as a daily — under Garcia’s guidance — in early 2011, will publish celebrity journalist commentary on A1. Garcia concedes American papers might find this unseemly — where’s the objectivity? where’s the integrity? — but a newspaper, he says, should be the most obvious place to find must-read writers.

Sound like tomorrow, not yesterday

“To find your place, you need to relinquish your time advantage,” Garcia says. Online provides the five w’s as they happen; print needs to find, and accept, its place as an ancillary source of information.

Foreign newspapers are less afraid to publish “headlines in the future tense, running second-day headlines on the first day,” Garcia says, pointing to Spain’s El Pais, which routinely pushes stories forward by focusing on what comes next, not what happened yesterday. More recently, The Independent’s Metro-style i, the UK’s first new national daily in quite some time, scatters snappy news briefs around ideas-driven articles, refusing to dwell on yesterday’s news .

American newsrooms may be handcuffed by traditions and finances. Garcia thinks they see him as an “interior decorator,” which may explain why he hasn’t consulted stateside in three years. But American editors, like Stackhouse, may be wise to pay attention to design changes in the foreign market: Before long, they may be the ones globetrotting to international newsrooms.

October 05 2010

14:00

Doubling down on print: Canada’s Globe and Mail unveils a new print edition to complement the web

The Globe and Mail, Canada’s most-circulated national daily newspaper, revealed its much-ballyhooed redesign on Friday. The paper is calling it “the most significant redesign” in its 166-year history, and it’s a billion-dollar bet on print at a time when the format’s fortunes would seem to be fading.

The renovations to “Canada’s National Newspaper” are part of what editor-in-chief John Stackhouse boldly calls his “Proudly Print” approach, with print as one component (with online and mobile) of a three-pronged news attack. The redesign tries to make the differences between print and web more clear. Full-color printing and a high-gloss wrap — the first of its kind in North America — aim to help lure advertisers. There’ll be more magazine-like stories, including photo-driven features plastered boldly on the front page. A slightly narrower size means shorter, punchier stories. And that’s not to mention the informational accoutrements, like sidebars and info graphs, and the litany of new inserts and content realignments. The redesign “once again demonstrates our commitment to the newspaper business,” according to publisher and CEO Phillip Crawley.

This is a big-time overhaul for the Globe, and not only because the paper sees it as a reassertion of dominance — i.e., shelling the struggling National Post, its conservative competitor since 1999, in the national newspaper war of attrition — over the Canadian media landscape.

But whenever a redesign happens, criticism follows. The prevailing question in this case is fairly obvious: Why invest in an 18-year, C$1.7-billion printing deal — with the same press as the San Francisco Chronicle — at a time when newsprint seems like yesterday’s medium?

“It’s going to be a millstone around the Globe’s neck,” says Mathew Ingram, a senior writer at GigaOm and former Globe web editor (and Lab contributor). “That’s 10 years you’re going to be paying for something that’s going to restrict the paper’s ability to do things that are focusing on the web. That’s not a thing a newspaper needs at a time like this.”

But the Globe sees its investment as a bet on print having a complementary role to online news going forward. “Our readers are digitally-minded people,” Stackhouse told me on launch day. “We publish a paper for people who are online a lot and still want a printed product at their doorstep every day to make sense of a world that flew by them while there were online.” Stackhouse, who took over as editor-in-chief in spring 2009 after a career as a business reporter, knows what he’s up against, and he’s making an argument about what a 21st-century newspaper needs to look like.

The Globe has always been the highbrow stalwart in Canadian journalism — and judging from its minimalist yet dramatic ad campaign, the paper still sees itself at the head of table. (For more proof, check out this nifty microsite.) Stackhouse uses the term “the daily pause,” when readers feel obligated to close their browsers and read insightful, show-stopping journalism. That’s what newspapers should strive to give their readers, he told me. He says there “needs to be more selection. We need to bring more insight to issues that matter most and focus on issues of consequence and try to have fun with it.”

The Globe, like most other newspapers, realizes there’s still money in print advertising. According to a profile of the Globe in last month’s Toronto Life magazine, the paper’s online component brings in roughly 15 percent of the revenue generated on the print side — not far off the totals for most large American newspapers.

Whether or not Crawley’s doubling-down strategy will work remains to be seen. Eighteen years is a long time. Critics wonder if placing such emphasis on print will limit the Globe’s ability to take the reigns of a slim Canadian online news market. The responses look a lot like this tweet, from Toronto-based technology consultant Rob Hyndman: “The Globe’s changes are about fear of loss, not about moving towards a positive goal.”

The Globe surely sees things differently. Its prime competitors — the National Post, the Toronto Star, and free dailies like Metro and 24 — are all print products. In fact, the paper’s weekday circulation jumped 5 percent last year and its print revenue increased 10 percent, while everyone else took a step backward. In Canada, the world of print is still the gladiator ring. The Canadian online news marketplace is underdeveloped: There’s nothing like Salon or The Daily Beast or The Huffington Post to draw eyeballs away from sites — GlobeandMail.com, CBC.ca, CTV.ca, GlobalTV.com — already affiliated with traditional news organizations. Speaking at the Economic Club of Canada on the eve of the launch, Stackhouse pinpointed four online competitors — The Huffington Post, Bloomberg, Yahoo Finance, and the BBC — none of which are Canadian. Without a sea of competitors galvanizing innovation and growth in Canadian online news, the Globe seems to think it makes sense to stick to the gravy — a move Ingram thinks is a mistake.

“Now is the time to seize the day, to become a leader,” he says, “because the Globe doesn’t have a huge amount of competition in print or online. It feels like it’s the only game in town — except maybe the CBC — and that lulls the paper into a false sense of security about its future.”

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