Spare me the fancy redesigns and give me some text to read

The blogosphere has been abuzz with chatter about the Orlando Sentinel redesign, so I’ll skip hunting up some relevant link for this post — you all know what I’m talking about.

The whole hullabaloo reminds me of a thought I’ve had many times recently: Why not just let a print newspaper be a print newspaper?

Spare me the big graphics and four-column photos and color splashes. Stop trying to turn your print front page into a web page.

Why not go back to pre-USAToday newspaper design? It’s time to let stories meander, let front pages be grey and full of information; rather than stuffing as high a story count as possible into the A and B sections; why not just tell the stories that need to be told, and then tell them well?

On the web, frequency and quantity (much more so than quality or depth) is what drives page views.

Online is about information grazing. Reading print is a more leisurely activity, even if it’s just 20 minutes over toast and coffee before rushing off to work.

Train your newsroom staff to keep that web site fresh, and then let them take their time on writing the really important stories in a way that provides meaning and context; for an added bonus, make sure those longer stories are well written, since print readers — shocking revelation here — like to read.

On a daily basis, a good reporter should be able to produce three or four web updates (some call it breaking news) and then pick one of those items to turn into a quality, longer print story (or have some other print-appropriate piece in the pipeline).

Rather than trying to figure out how to use graphics and space-wasting indexes to capture the attention of “time starved readers,” or young readers, or soccer moms, or NASCAR dads, or whatever flavor-the-day your design consultant says you should reach, why not just cede the fact that local news is a niche interest, and your core audience for that niche doesn’t care about fancy packages — they care about the news, the information. Oh, and they also want comics, classifieds, stock listings and movie times (print is still a package).

If they want timeliness, they’ll go online.

News isn’t about a demographic (as in, “How do we target women, age 24 to 35, with one child and two cats?”), which seems to be the approach taken by the expensive design consultants. News is about meeting the needs of people of both sexes, all ages, religions and nationalities who want to understand the world around them. Sadly, that isn’t everybody, but it’s a lot of people, and surveys show newspapers are doing a poor job of meeting that need.

So fix it

Any copy editor with a pica poll should be able to put together a decent front page. It shouldn’t take an eye for art or snazzy color combinations.

The print product and the online product should be different products. They may serve the same audience, but they serve different needs at different times. The print product should provide context and a moment’s respite. The online product should say, “this is what is happening now.”

Hey, Mr. Publisher — you want to save your print circulation? Try digging into your archives and looking at your newspaper from 1971. Make your 2008 paper look like that. It should read like that. That should be your print design model and your print content model. I’d even bet that you would get some young readers back with such an approach, because your paper would finally appeal to what should be your target demographic — people who like to read the news.