Newspaper Redesign Can Be Okay But Great Reporting Is Still What’s Important

By: Harry Jaffe

Image courtesy of the Newseum.
On the day the Washington Post unveiled its new design, the newspaper did what it still does best: It published the second in a powerful investigative series about how the District misspends millions to treat AIDS victims. The articles, by Debbie Cenziper, are maddening, saddening, and solidly grounded in documents.

But was it easier to read? Is the new Washington Post easier to read than it was Sunday?

Biggest change for readers throughout the Post is the typeface. The Post switched from Postroman to a version of Scotch Roman, “a sturdy typeface used in newspapers since the early 1800s.”

The new type is thinner and will allow the Post to get more words on the page. Being less bold, it is slightly harder to read, especially for Boomers with fading eye sight, and they make up the bulk of print readers.

Cenziper’s AIDS investigation was laid out clearly in two pages in the center of the A section: Photos were sharp and subheads on breaks in the copy lead the reader through the long story to the end.

But the rest of the paper’s redesign gave the sense of moving deck chairs around on the Titanic.

Marcus Brauchli, the Post’s executive editor and the guiding hand behind the redesign, came to DC from the Wall Street Journal. And, surprise, the Post as a whole now has the look of the Wall Street Journal, especially with the line drawings of marquee writers and editors. Media writer Howard Kurtz smiles wanly over his “Media Notes” column.
 
Publisher Katharine Weymouth’s caricature does not do her justice. By happenstance, drawings of her, education writer Valerie Strauss, and columnist Carolyn Hax are the only ones of women in an array of white males, including sports columnists, education writer Jay Mathews, executive editor Brauchli, and editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt.

As for Hiatt’s page, I found the editorials very hard to follow. The top of three essays dominated the page and trivialized the other two. Tom Toles’s cartoon floated in the center of the page. Did it relate to the endorsement of Virginia lieutenant-governor candidate Jody Wagner that surrounded it on two sides? Nope.

Better question for Hiatt: In the age of transparency, when will the Post start signing its editorials?

This week the Post will roll out redesigned sections on health and science and food, but in the merged sections, readers will still come away with less coverage of their favorite topics.

Gary Trudeau’s “Doonsbury” has migrated to the bottom of Style’s Page 2, beneath Reliable Source and a book review.

Why did the Post spend so much time and money on refashioning its newspaper?

As Brauchli writes in the special section describing the changes: “The print edition of The Post reachers a higher percentage of households in its circulation area than any other major metropolitan paper.” Though circulation continues to fall, the printed newspaper still brings in the lion’s share of the revenues to support it and the Post’s Web site, in need of an overhaul itself.

The problem with the printed paper was not its old design but its lack of advertising. Monday’s A Section had only four full-page ads in 20 pages. You can’t redesign your way to getting more ad pages.

But you can keep publishing great investigative work, regardless of typeface.

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