A Tsunami in the Distance: St. Pete Times Redesign Almost Here
I've always felt there is no better illustration of the maddening dilemmas of the modern newspaper than the moment when it debuts a new design.
That sense is only heightened by the most recent redesigns -- aimed at scaling back the size of newspapers to save newsprint costs and offer a handier shape for readers, these new formats also sum up all the frustrations and paradoxes which bedevil the modern newspaper.
And now we're about to walk down that rocky road next week at the St. Petersburg Times.
If you've read the newspaper the last two days or visited the portal Web site, you've already seen our stories about what's coming. See the gallery of new pages here. The upshot: the Times will save millions by slimming down to a shape that research indicates readers want, anyway.
But here's the dilemma: when big changes come, we are always caught between the audience we have, which generally likes what we're doing now, and the potential audience we hope might respond favorably to a revamped product.
So when the new, smaller paper debuts next Monday, I expect readers to offer concern, complaints, debate and disssection. We got loads of response when we changed up the comics pages; no one knows for sure how much response a paper-wide redesign will produce, but common sense says to expect lots of telephone, email and letter action.
There are lots of changes: the book pages, travel section and Sunday arts are coming together in a section called Latititudes; 2A becomes a reader-oriented page, with contact information, the weather map, guide to Tampabay.com and answers to reader-submitted questions; the daily tbt*'s World in a Snap page also comes to the main edition and more.
One thing I learned from writing about other newspapers' redesigns, is that such projects are an ongoing process, fueled in part by feedback from readers. It may feel like consumers don't have much voice in this process, but most other organizations I've talked to pay close attention to how readers react to design changes, and I expect similar attentiveness here.
Many of us have been given note pads to take down comments, along with some information to help with those who have questions. I wasn't involved with the redesign, but I'll do what I can to answer your questions in this space or through phone calls or emails. I do expect that the newspaper will have other online outlets for your questions, which would probably get you more direct answers.
This is a time of tremendous change for all of us at the newspaper -- our newsroom is in the middle of an extensive upgrade and renovation; we recently began using a new computer system for writing and laying out our newspaper; we debuted the daily tbt* months ago and the redesign offers more changes in many areas.
But we've also learned that widespread change also offers opportunites to upgrade, try new things and get a fresh perspective. As somebody who tries to write about media, its been a particular challenge to keep it real on this blog and also balance my responsiblities as a Times employee.
I know I'm going to miss having the kind of space as a writer I had 10 years ago. There will probably be some readers who miss that acreage as well. But the challenge now is to provide the same journalistic quality in a form that respects the reader's time and attracts those who felt the traditional newspaper form didn't serve their needs well enough.
For me, it feels like that moment when you're in the rollercoaster and it's inching up the first, big incline -- its wheels tick, tick, ticking as the car slowly creeps up to what you know will be an exhilarating and frightening ride.
Hope you guys wind up liking it as much as we'd like you to.
UPDATE: Newspaper designer Alan Jacobson of Brass Tacks Design offers his own tips for newspapers to survive the current state of upheaval, from the obvious -- get real about the Internet, promote as if success depends on it, figure out how to make money online (no DUH!) -- to the ridiculous: tie journalists' pay to circulation (ensuring we only cover stuff that boosts readership, the same way local TV does) , stop running news stories (put breakng news online and save news on paper for analysis) and ignore your loyal readers (the same strategy which has turned commercial radio into a wasteland).
Jacobson offers some interesting stuff -- dropping subscription prices to avoid cutting ad rates and avoid cutting costs too deply to protect the cash cow -- but much of this feels like the same old advice in a bold new costume.