Lipstick on a pig?

By Steve Outing

This Sunday, the Orlando Sentinel will debut a significant redesign of the print edition (prompted, of course, by Tribune Co. owner Sam Zell‘s company-wide call to go crazy and reinvent newspapers). While I’m writing this in advance of seeing the actual paper, there is a nice multimedia presentation that shows what’s coming. So I’m commenting on what’s being shown there.

The Orlando Sentinel’s new design debuts on Sunday.

This feels very much like the introduction of USA Today so many years ago. Lots of the innovations feel the same: Let’s assume that readers don’t have much of an attention span and that we have to hit them over the head with a 2×4. Shorter. Punchier. Flashier. Perkier writing. Big photos and art. Bigger and better digests showing what’s inside.

What’s new here that USA Today didn’t do years ago? Bringing in more outside voices — reader comments, bloggers — is the main difference I spotted. Am I missing anything?

Personally, I think I’d prefer this newly designed paper over an older and more traditionally designed one. I’m not one who gets freaked out by drastic overnight changes in my media. But I wonder if older readers who still cling to reading print editions will freak out, and feel like the new paper is dumbed down (despite the editor’s assurance that it’s not).

It feels like the redesign is aimed at getting more younger readers. OK, that’s a rational goal. But I don’t think that’s achievable, because printed newspapers are simply not the medium of choice for today’s younger generation.

What I fear may happen is that this radical redesign will not attract significant numbers of new young readers. Rather, it will turn off the loyalists who still buy the print edition.

OK, that was rather negative. How about a more positive comment?

First off, I’ve been immersed in online for a long time; I left my last print newspaper job in late 1993. I’m not a big believer anymore in print newspapers, and I think they’ll continue to slowly wind down as the masses switch to digital and mobile means of consuming news. So from my (admittedly not mainstream) view, trying to improve the printed newspaper is a bit of a “putting lipstick on a pig” exercise. (Hmm… I’m still being pretty negative. :( )

If Zell wants his newspapers to truly innovate, perhaps he should get his people to do something truly innovative. (Flashy print redesigns don’t strike me as the best use of innovators’ brain cells. That’s not to say that they’re without merit; on the contrary, I think they are of value. I did spend several years working in a newspaper art department, and have affection for and appreciation of the value of newspaper design. No, I just think there are bigger fish to fry, and most of it involves figuring out a new business model for online and mobile, not trying to gussy up the print edition.)

I see a couple key issues that newspaper companies need to address: 1. news-on-demand, and 2. personalization. Print editions are anything but news-on-demand, so we can strike that; you can’t pick up a newspaper and go read or view something that’s not already on the printed page.

Personalization of the print edition, on the other hand, may be a good area to innovate. Next Thursday and Friday I’m attending the Conference on the Individuated Newspaper, which is being hosted by the folks at Denver-based MediaNews Group. The event’s focus is not just online but also on individualizing print editions, in recognition of printing technology advances that make it feasible. Perhaps some interesting ideas will come out of that, and I’ll share them.

I’m sure I’ll write in more depth after the conference, but just to give you an idea of what’s coming, think about a newspaper with a personalized section (or wrapper) that contains news happening in your neighborhood — which could be from sources beyond just the newspaper staff (local bloggers, school websites, etc.) — and that matches your recorded preferences (sports teams you like, specific industry news, etc.). That’s all stuff that you can do “fairly easily” online. True innovation offline would be adding some of this to the print edition.

I’m less of a print fan than many in the newspaper industry, but if I were to steer some of my thinking to print again, I wouldn’t expect even an excellent redesign to do much more than pretty up that pig.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!