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A Closer Look at the Tribune's New Look

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November 12, 2008
When the Chicago Tribune introduced its new look recently, it announced that the content has been reinvented and reorganized and the pages have been redesigned for visual appeal. According to the editor, the newspaper is now "bolder and brighter, better organized and more relevant to your daily life."

Given the fact that people are increasingly looking to the Web and television for news coverage, did anyone notice? Does anyone care?

Assistant Professor Jeremy Gilbert of the Medill School offers his view, commenting on the Tribune's redesign and explaining how it reflects the changing mission of newspapers in general. Gilbert, who joined Northwestern this fall, teaches interactive storytelling and web/print design tools and techniques. He has helped redesign newspapers in two Florida markets and recently led the Poynter Institute in redesigning its Web site.

What is the Tribune trying to accomplish?

The goal of the redesign, I think, is to attract casual readers. They're trying to create a paper that is less intimidating, not just rivers of gray type. They're trying to make it a quicker scan, so you can look at the front page and get a sense of what's going on that day. And I think they're trying to make it look more hip and lively. The information is not all that different, but it is more useful.

What do you mean by 'useful?'

They're emphasizing specific things to know each day. Rather than saying, 'We trust that everything in here is important and that you'll read the whole thing,' they're admitting that some people aren't going to read the entire paper. And for those who aren't, they're going to offer you enough so you can get by.

If this is 'new and improved,' what does it say about the previous version?

The Tribune had a sense of who the core readers were. And the design catered to those people, the readers prepared to spend the most time with the paper each day. What they're acknowledging now is that maybe casual readers are as important as core readers. They're betting that they're not as likely to get subscribers who read six or seven days a week to drop their subscriptions as they are to entice someone who picks up the paper once a week to now pick it up twice a week.

Also, the old design acknowledged that there was a Web site but didn't truly integrate the Web. In some ways the old version claimed that all the news you needed to know was in there. The new Tribune says, 'Here's all the analysis about the news that you need to know,' but some of the news itself is coming from the Web site or WGN television.

How important is design in telling news stories?

Increasingly our culture is becoming more visual. And people have so many more media options. So the graphic design element works on two levels. The first is information architecture. How many layers of headlines are there? How many different entry points are there? Is the page organized well enough so that you can quickly find -- not necessarily what you're looking for -- but something interesting and useful?

And the second level is the appeal of a well-made product. A user's reaction emanates from their interaction with the product, like running your hand across the dashboard of a car sporting a finish of walnut or vinyl. You know which is better. I think the Tribune's redesign was about saying, "This is a well-made product."

The new Tribune is not an isolated redesign. Newspapers around the world have been launching similar efforts. What does this mean?


The one thing to take away, more than looks, is the changing nature of storytelling. Much more than ever before, the Tribune is telling stories like Time magazine. And the reason for that -- it's advertising it right on the front page -- is the breaking news blog. Years ago, newspapers used to shock readers with what happened the day before. But people aren't waking up and being shocked to read that the Dow plummeted 500 points. If you didn't learn that yesterday, when it happened, then you probably don't care about it today. But why did the Dow fall so far? That's going to matter.

The ability of newspapers in general to analyze the news, to think critically and act essentially like daily magazines is the most compelling case you could make for their survival. If papers can't find a way to divorce the news gathering process from the medium and make the print edition valuable, separate from just breaking news, then I don't think they're going to have value to readers. People have so many other ways -- many of them free -- to get that kind of news. So I'd say that in five years, if newspapers don't look even more like news magazines, then it might be because there aren't as many papers anymore.

So what's your verdict?

I like it better. It's easier to find some things. On the mornings when I have time, I can read it all and still get the in-depth reporting that the Tribune has always been known for. Other days I can skim it without feeling like I've missed something. In the old format, either I read just the headline or the whole story; there wasn't much in between. The new Tribune gives me the chance to read the headline and story on some things, the headline and breakout points on other things or maybe just the breakout points.

That said, given these economic times, it's difficult not having a dedicated business section. And I really wish the front news section came in one part instead of two.

I'd give it a qualified thumbs-up.