From the Winter 2012 issue of California Publisher
Think about the newspaper’s hometown feel: It can fade away when the boss or owner changes. It also can get misplaced when the reporting staff steps in from somewhere else or a single-minded editor changes the paper’s coverage mission.
In Orange County, where the print-centric rejuvenation of The Register has many puzzling and applauding, one editor’s mandate is more feet-on-the-street.
As in, you’re gonna need a lot of Red Bull more.
Rob Curley, whose Omaha-to-D.C.-to-Vegas adventures in hyper-local content landed him last year in Santa Ana, has shepherded a local reintroduction of 24 community broadsheets for readers of The Orange County Register.
California Publisher: How did you make sure to include local flavor in the look? And how much has gone into making them distinctive?
Rob Curley: Many of these papers have been tabloids with shared designs and similar flags for more than a decade. One of the things we did was spend a lot of time on the flags. A newspaper’s flag should represent its city and its people. It should feel like it’s the hometown newspaper. Yes, that sometimes can just be a font, but not for a newspaper that has undergone several flag changes over its lifetime.
For the Anaheim Bulletin, we used a font very similar to what the paper used in its flag from the 1920s through the 1940s. We then added imagery that was clearly iconic to the community. For the Fullerton paper, we returned to the same font the paper used in the early 1900s. The problem was when that flag was used, the paper’s name was simply the Fullerton Tribune. That meant we had to create our own version of the word News.
We gave this much care to every paper’s flag, worrying about fonts, images, and even having custom illustrations created.
We were just as careful with what’s inside these papers. The 24 papers are basically split between five community editors and teams. There are certainly things that are shared by all the papers – like much more coverage of schools, churches and businesses – but each group also did things very specific to each newspaper.
The only thing cookie-cutter about these papers is that we used really, really good dough in each one of them.
CP: 24 remakes: It sounds like a redesign monster. Describe the workflow just for the remake: How did the local editors feed that info back into the look?
RC: We started with one prototype that had elements we thought would be fairly consistent in all of the papers – things like fonts and page folios, shorter stories, multiple points of entry, lots of engaging elements and information snippets – and lots of photos of people. But our biggest goal was to introduce a sense of fun, big designs, with lots of different narrative elements, and a way for our reporters and editors to steer clear of long text that basically screams to readers that they shouldn’t read this story.
In many ways we were combining old-school community stories with new-world design sensibilities. What if your local newspaper looked like it was designed in this decade and read like it was put together so that people couldn’t put it down once they picked it up?
CP: The digital concept, where content plays nice on desktop and mobile devices, doesn’t apply here. How much does that “emotional connection” of ink-on-paper in-hand fit this scenario?
RC: These weekly newspapers live within the ecosystem of The Orange County Register. That means The Register does regional sports like the Angels and big statewide political issues and all of the important national and international stories. The Register also does all of the breaking news, whether that’s a big local story or a much bigger national or state story.
To get our weekly papers, you literally have to be a Register subscriber. That meant we could focus on what weekly papers do really well and not worry about all the other stuff. In some ways, we function much more like a really well-done and localized Sunday magazine that just happens to think your daughter placing first in a local piano competition is important.
The content we’re putting in these papers really is meant to work best on newsprint. When you see the stories we’re telling and how we’re telling them, it’s hard to imagine someone getting anything even close to the same experience by taking their iPhone to the bathroom and trying to read them.
CP: When people clamor for the news they want to read, what does that sound like?
RC: After having focused on digital delivery and audience growth for so long, one of the things I learned was what readers really want. And what I loved about that was more traditional newspaper folks would say crazy things like: “Well, if we give our readers what they want, we’ll only be publishing stories and photos of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan.” That always cracked me up because when I looked at the real numbers and tried to honestly understand what local readers really spent time with, it was never Britney or Lindsay.
On the other hand, it also wasn’t the kind of boring stuff that fills many newspapers.
With The Register’s new weekly newspapers, we’re trying to serve our readers’ needs. When you understand the narrative of a real reader’s life, you begin to realize that a whole lot of our industry’s woes have a whole lot less to do with the Internet and a whole lot more to do with newsrooms being just a bit disconnected with what people really want and need.
We run more public record information – business licenses, real estate transactions, arrest reports – in these weekly newspapers than any other print product I’ve ever seen. But we definitely aren’t trying to be the paper of record. We’re trying to be the paper of interesting.
It’s a given that we’re going to cover the news. But who is going to tell you where to get great cupcakes for your kid’s birthday party or what the best janitor in Orange County says is the most effective way to clean windows, or which local restaurants have those cool new Coke machines? We are. And we’re going to do it in way that makes you smile. Maybe even laugh.
People should smile when they read the newspaper. They’ve gotten too accustomed to shaking their head in disgust when they open our pages. I’m not saying that we have to publish lots of fluff, but we shouldn’t be afraid of being pleasant.
Our readers have been telling us for years that they want more good news in our papers, that they get burned out on the constant doom and gloom. Yet most newspapers have ignored that request. Why? Are we afraid we won’t be taken seriously by the industry if we tell the good news stories? We’re not afraid to tell the good news stories – our weeklies are full of them. And our readers tell us they love them.
CP: What can we share with other newspaper people that might inspire their own revivals?
RC: As our new publisher, Aaron Kushner, says, our secret sauce really is to do everything we can to first be relevant and then be essential. This really is a reader-based initiative.
I’ve worked at so many newspapers where you will hear a reporter or an editor say something like: “Our readers are idiots.” Well, we don’t feel that way at all. We adore our readers.
CP: CNPA members last saw you onstage a few years back at our San Francisco convention (when Curley was with the Las Vegas Sun). How does this newspaper project compare to your gigs in Las Vegas and D.C.?
RC: This really isn’t like anything I’ve ever done, though I’ve certainly been collecting lessons from the school of hard knocks through the entire time.
Five years ago, I couldn’t have done the job that [Register Editor] Ken Brusic and Aaron have asked me to do here at The Register, but at this exact moment, I’m not sure there’s another editor in the country more up for this challenge.
Aaron likes to remind people that this isn’t an experiment. In experiments, you can fail. We aren’t going to fail.