Diary of a Makeover:
REDESIGN = REDEFINE AT THE BOSTON HERALD
Author's note: The Boston Herald redesign was launched Aug. 24, 1998. Go here for a gallery of page designs and information about the reaction to the new look.
"To Redesign: Why? How? Who?"
Home page: www.ronreason.com
Originally commissioned for and published in Presstime magazine.
Not to be republished without permission or recirculated without attribution.
In January 1996, newsroom leaders of the Boston Herald engaged in a series of meetings to discuss the paper's future. On the surface, their goal was to brainstorm ideas about new content and ways to better serve existing, and possibly new, audiences.
Underlying the conversation was a strong desire to update the 285,930-circulation paper's look, and to enable the staff to make greater use of design and graphics in conveying the news. Traditional "word people" were among those most articulate about the need for physical change.
The morning Herald, Boston's number-two paper, is a lean-and-mean tabloid tackling the larger Globe. Its news report can fairly be called an edgier take on the city's affairs. Readers like the Herald's breaking crime news, gossip, award-winning photo coverage, sports, and in-your-face columnists. Inarguably, this paper projects personality.
But as recently as 1994, when Publisher Patrick J. Purcell bought the Herald from media baron Rupert Murdoch, many questioned the survival of that personality. This hand over, combined with concerns about declining circulation, made the time ripe for talk about the future.
In July 1996, Editor Andrew F. Costello Jr. contacted me about shepherding a new look for the Herald. As director of visual journalism at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, I am periodically asked to consult on redesign or training issues. The Herald, as the underdog metro, promised some fascinating academic as well as professional opportunities.
Costello suggested a preliminary visit to ensure that the Herald and I would be a good "fit." In preparation, I read the paper closely for several weeks and poured over dozens of memos chronicling the staff's conversation on change. It was apparent that the time was right for a redesign.
One year later, much of the process is behind us. The redesign has served up a number of lessons that may help guide other managers confronting the need for a makeover, either in the physical look of their paper or the attitudes that shape it.
During August 1996, in the first of what would become monthly visits to the Herald newsroom, I began lengthy and ongoing conversations with reporters, artists, editors and photographers about how they thought the paper should change. I have tried to serve as a mediator for some difficult talk, sometimes challenging age-old traditions. Employees have been asked:
In September 1996, I presented to the newsroom a dozen variations of what I thought the front page might become. I knew the staff felt strongly about its front page, and I sensed that this would be a moment of decision that could influence how the project developed.
To my relief, these prototypes met with broad acceptance, and a lively review ensued. Some revisions would be made along the way, but the tone seemed right. Most everyone agreed these pages would be a good foundation for others to follow, and Costello and Purcell committed to the redesign.
One of my first reactions upon analyzing the paper was that many "design cobwebs" had cropped up over time. As is common with similar newspapers that don't follow a design stylebook, dozens of variations of logos and page headers had taken up residence.
Hundreds of fonts were available to Herald copy editors and artists. Along with typography, gray screens, boxes, shadows and rules were used with abandon; the design philosophy was nearly "anything goes." Even if I introduced new typography and page architecture, I worried, design chaos might reappear at anytime.
It had become obvious that this project should have two components: the physical redesign, including typography and architecture to be outlined in a new design stylebook, and training of the staff to think differently about planning, communicating, and visual storytelling.
By October 1996, I set out to convince Costello, redesign coordinator Linda G. Kincaid, and Design Director Ed Barrett to introduce a clean-up phase. Before adopting any new elements, we had to teach the staff better design habits. Designers soon learned to use fewer fonts more effectively, and to rely less on gray screens and other elements that do not print well on the Herald's aging Hoe letterpress presses.
Thus began an interim period to carry the staff through to the launch of the new look later this year. A training program helped broaden awareness of how type works, and Times and Univers were temporarily adopted as font families for use throughout the paper. This made designers and copy editors less dependent on multiple fonts and gimmicks and more concerned with improving art and page design.
This new approach already has helped create a more clear and cohesive editorial identity and distinguished the news hole from the paper's busy ad pages. And in addition to thinking in new ways about type and design, the staff is spending more time on planning and brainstorming for both daily and long-term projects.
One key component of this emphasis on training was Costello's clarification of some newsroom roles. Barrett and Kincaid were empowered to police design and champion graphics in a way that had not been done before. Now many pages are reviewed with the designer before publication, or after the fact, in biweekly group critiques.
One specific design element that managers were eager to change was body copy. The paper's current font, Century Expanded, was too fragile for the nearly 40-year-old presses, and often broke apart on the printed page. Kincaid decided to test the new Poynter text typefaces, which proved more sturdy and readable, and arranged for licensing with the font's distributor, the Font Bureau Inc. of Boston.
During fall and winter 1996, more prototypes were created and revised on the Macintosh computer, and the new look was fleshed out. And on each of my visits, many in the newsroom contributed good ideas about how the paper should look. But they also had strong opinions about how the process of putting out the paper should improve. Conventions started to be challenged, such as a decades-old rule that stories must accompany all display photos. "Why not?" and "Where did that rule come from?" entered the newsroom vocabulary.
In many ways, the baggage the Herald had accumulated was as much philosophical as typographic. Over the years, the ownership and even name of the paper had changed significantly. At one point it was even called the Boston Record American-Herald Traveler. The paper has been alternately a broadsheet and a tabloid, sometimes extremely sensational, sometimes quiet and conservative.
Still felt is the reign of Murdoch, who bought the Boston Herald-American in 1982, shortening its name and adding a colorful chapter to its history. Editors brought in from Murdoch's New York Post and other papers came and went, leaving behind styles and influences that still resonate in the newsroom and the community.
Said one Bostonian, upon learning that I was helping to update the Herald's appearance: "I hope you can do something about its content, too!" She clearly hadn't read the paper much since its sensational days, and was unaware of how good many of its sections were today. Clearly, one goal of the new design would have to be to make the paper's quality more evident to readers like this. "Have you read the Herald lately?" became a possible marketing slogan that rings through my head.
While Herald managers have explored ways to update the paper's mission, staff structure, and decision-making processes, their definition of journalism has broadened as well. Already, graphic storytelling has received more emphasis, as illustrated through the paper's comprehensive coverage this summer of the bicentennial sailing of the USS Constitution.
Some might view this new emphasis on visuals as too slow in coming. But as Sunday Managing Editor Kevin R. Convey told me, change has always been slow to come to this paper. "People don't realize the Herald was one of the last big papers to even move to a front-end system" for editorial production, in the mid-'80s, Convey said.
As of September 1997, the Herald has evolved into a cleaner paper, with more respect for photos, fewer aberrant type combinations, and greater clarity of words and visuals. Kincaid, who recently was appointed deputy managing editor for design and production, expects that the redesign will basically be a switch to new fonts. The wide variety of column logos and section nameplates, still in use, will be replaced by a cleaner, tighter set of standard styles.
The redesign, essentially finished, made its debut after the Herald presses were retrofitted to add five KBA flexo press units, to allow the printing of more color pages. A new design stylebook of nearly 100 pages guided the staff in the nuts and bolts of the new design and remind them of the philosophy behind its adoption. It included extensive computer codes for the new styles as well as sample pages.
As should be the case with any redesign, this project has proved to be about much more than typefaces and white space. A new look and some new attitudes will have the potential to help redefine and re-establish what the Herald represents in the late '90s, and perhaps for years to come.
© 1998, Ron Reason. Not to be republished without permission or recirculated without attribution.
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Updated: January 2006.
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