For the Akron Beacon Journal, what’s even better than today’s ‘facelift’? Smarter content.
By Ron Reason
Sometimes a newspaper wants to send a signal to readers and advertisers that it’s freshening things up, adding new features and making it all easier to read, but doesn’t quite need a full-blown redesign to get there.
This was the realization of Bruce Winges, Editor and Vice President of the Akron Beacon Journal in Ohio, after working with me over the last few months on what he terms a “facelift,” rather than a redesign, of the 175-year-old newspaper. The results debut this weekend, May 2 and 3, 2015.
HOW EVEN A ‘FACELIFT’ REDESIGN CAN HELP THE BRAND
Publishers opting for more radical change can argue that their market (or the challenges facing their operation) warrants a bold reinvention. But even more modest change can send a signal to advertisers: We’re keeping up with the times. We’re adding value. We’re remodeling to create something better for the reader. New ad positions were incorporated into key areas of Akron’s new format, with the aim of adding to the slate of options for advertisers to reach readers. New content (see below) also was developed to increase interest among untapped advertisers.
HOW THE ‘FACELIFT’ REDESIGN PROCESS WORKS
During my initial conversations with Bruce, we realized that a selective number of design changes could add up to noticeable impact. A limited set of consulting services, provided under a tight timetable with specific deliverables and deadlines, can make a redesign more orderly and affordable. I was honored to work with Bruce and his team on the one consulting gig I allowed myself this spring, while on a teaching engagement at the University of Montana.
I produced the bulk of the design concepts from afar, and we debated them virtually over about six weeks this winter. I guided the staff through the process of how to present and debate the changes using internal focus groups, and the designs underwent intensive fine-tuning. This was followed by a month of staff conversion of my templates, and testing of fonts, styles, colors and photo use, under efficient and creative supervision by the in-house team of Mark Turner, executive news editor, Dave Helmick, technology coordinator, and Kim Barth, photo director. The staff emailed me PDFs of their test pages for feedback, and in quick order, they were ready to go live.
GO AHEAD — TELL YOUR FRIENDS YOU’RE GETTING A FACELIFT!
Once Bruce and his team decided to focus on the ‘facelift’ concept, versus a dramatic makeover, marketing efforts targeted that as a tagline for the debut. Michelle Wilson, a night shift supervisor in the Beacon Journal advertising art department, came up with the creative concepts for the “facelift” campaign shown here. These were used in house ads in the days leading up to the debut, as well as wraparound covers on the Saturday and Sunday editions, sort of playing peek-a-boo to the complete front page for those two days. This was a great way to flag the readers’ attention that something new (but not unsettling) was afoot.
BUT WHAT GOOD’S A PRETTY FACE WITHOUT BRAINS?
Looking sharper is nice, but in and of itself will not win over the affections of readers or advertisers. In his letter to readers in the Saturday edition, Bruce details that the facelift is more than a cosmetic exercise. Among the content changes recently adopted or coming soon, which should provide real value to readers and should get advertisers to take notice:
- An entirely reinvented “Daily Briefing” package on Page 2, with meaty summaries of world and nation news, top things to do for the day, top items on the web, and celeb news as well. (It’s notable that lots of newspapers, including The New York Times, are reviving this “what you need to know to start your day” concept online and on their mobile apps as well.)
- New gardening and lawn features.
- Expanded coverage of transportation issues affecting the region.
- An expanded emphasis on social media to solicit engagement by readers.
In addition to keeping print fresh, the paper has been innovating with new digital efforts as well. Bruce reports that during the recent NBA playoffs, the paper created Cleveland Cavaliers special sections, with additional photos, stories, and stats available only on its online “replica” edition, as a bonus to digital subscribers. Bruce says the effort resulted in 40% more traffic to the online edition.
INITIAL FEEDBACK FROM READERS
Bruce shares the following samples of positive feedback after the first weekend of publication:
- “Love it! I’ve been having the Beacon Journal home delivered to four addresses from Akron to Bath to Medina since 1983 when I moved here from San Francisco. I’ve always enjoyed the content and organization, but now I can enjoy the appearance, too. I like the new section headline colors and I especially like the new Daily Briefing page — great, short snippets of news and reminders of previous stories are helpful, if a person is rushing out to work, meetings or errands. Thank you for the time and thought you put into improving the quality of my favorite newspaper! I actually smiled while reading about the consultants and meetings over time in order to facilitate these changes. I appreciate your efforts to produce an actual PAPER newspaper.” (Lynda Essman, Medina)
- “I really like the design changes as they do indeed add a crispness to the paper. The new headline typeface is better as is the new masthead, much sleeker and less over the top as before. Thanks for the modernization.” (Mike Lupole, Wooster)
- “As someone who has made a living designing ads mostly for newspapers, I really enjoy your new look. I like the clean, sans serif typeface, but you didn’t go far enough. Change the logo! I am impressed, weekly, on small changes in layout that I see in the Beacon Journal … there’s more that I LIKE than I DON’T LIKE.” (Maria Mollis)
Congratulations to Bruce and his team. Here’s to another 175 years (and more) for the Beacon Journal.
Wondering if the “facelift” approach to efficient, affordable redesign is right for your publication? Contact me and we’ll talk about it!
Ron Reason is a consultant to news publications around the world, helping rethink strategies for design, advertising, marketing, leadership, organizational structure, and audience engagement across platforms. Currently he is completing his tenure as the Spring 2015 T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professor at the University of Montana School of Journalism in Missoula, teaching a course titled “Critical Thinking About Design and Disruption.” For more about Ron and his work, visit his blog, Design With Reason.
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OTHER INNOVATIONS IN AKRON
Bruce Winges, editor, reports the paper is experimenting in other ways, too. For the Cleveland Cavaliers’ recent appearances in the NBA playoffs, the paper has created an enhanced “replica edition” which provides bonus game coverage to digital subscribers (and print subscribers with digital benefits). This 4–6 extra pages of coverage per game has increased the traffic to these editions by about 40 percent.
note to readers: