My take on the new Ottawa Citizen design – and my hope for better in the future.
So here’s the big story in my local paper: “Postmedia and the Ottawa Citizen today unveil a reinvention of the local news business.” But after looking it over, it’s not the local news business they are re-inventing. It’s something far older. Something that already works…
The Ottawa Citizen is Ottawa’s oldest newspaper, tracing its roots back to 1845, when it was called The Bytown Packet then renamed The Citizen in 1851 – right around the time the city was undergoing its own rebranding from Bytown to Ottawa. Over the years, the paper has undergone a lot of changes and reinventions, some in response to competition, many to suit the tastes of new owners – most recently a series of “media conglomerates” like CanWest Global and now Postmedia.
But through it all, The Ottawa Citizen has been the capital city’s paper of record. Which is why I continue to subscribe, and care, through their recent declines and cuts, and even though I get most of my news online. Even more, I want my paper to get better. I want it to become the kind of paper other towns envy.
But the sad truth? Most “old media” newspaper-driven brands are going through hard times. Declining ad revenue and increasing competition for online eyeballs are even requiring radical rethinking at old stalwarts like the New York Times. (Thanks Mark Scrivens for the Twitter tip-off).
So there is a need for change. Here’s what the Citizen said about their new “four-platform” redesign:
The strategy represents a bold investment in the future at a time when many newspapers are retrenching under pressure from an industry-wide slump in ad revenue.
“We’ve reinvented each one of our products from the ground up — from a completely blank canvas,” said Wayne Parrish, chief operating officer of Postmedia Network Canada Corp. and the man in charge of transforming the business.”
Okay. But as I tell clients, there is no blank canvas. Ever. The key to any renovation is to build the new structure (or brand) on its historical strengths. And the strength of a newspaper is the the quality of its ongoing writing and editorial choices, coupled with breadth of its coverage, and the depth of its ongoing reputation and archive. It doesn’t matter what platform, those are the keys. So users need to be a. hooked by compelling words, b. driven by relevant topics, and c. drawn into a relationship over time.
So even before the ink dries on day one of the new regime, let me risk a few quick thoughts on the logo, Website, and paper redesign. I’ve got a lot more to say – particularly about the mobile app, but let’s save that for another time.
The new logo: From classy to slap-dashy.
The new masthead image moves from the current image on the left – which is classy, iconic, and rooted in the serious journalistic heritage of the newspaper – to the one on the right. Now I get that they want to make it more “mobile friendly”, but it comes across as a cramped, washed out, generic abstraction of itself. It looks like an afterthought.
Which I suspect it was…
It reminds me of the recently unveiled National Arts Centre logo: triangles. In a box.
The new Website: content-lite
The biggest problem with the new home page is that it no longer looks or feels like a news site. There are lots of photos and headlines. And ads. Oh yes, lots of those too. So there’s a lot to look at; just not a lot there.
It’s hard to find meaningful organization of topics and headings, there are very few text summaries of article content (and those too short), and it’s also missing other context points like author info, time-of-posting, and related articles.
Basically, it looks like an entertainment Website, not a solid, content-rich news source. And this is exactly the opposite direction than most news sites are moving. Those sites take their cues from online content powerhouses like Gawker, Slate, BuzzFeed, and the Huffington Post, which are moving toward more text content on their home pages, but with better organization.
Just look at this spread of the top 12 news sites in the world. All but one have moved toward more text-based article content. Only NBC news has moved in the other direction recently – a move that was widely panned by critics and regular readers – check the CrappyDesign reddit for a chorus of boos or this insightful critique from a news design expert.
The new “offline” paper design
The new Ottawa Citizen newspaper redesign looks cleaner, and in many ways more professional.
— Steve Ladurantaye (@sladurantaye) May 20, 2014
So it seems clear that they spent a great deal of their “four-platform” energy on the paper itself. But again, note the drastic reduction in the amount of content on the page and the huge blocks devoted to design elements. They seem to be taking cues more from a “quick read” media brand like USA Today (see below) than from respected, authoritative news sources like The New York Times, Toronto Star, or even the Huffington Post.
Maybe I’m wrong. Actually, I hope I am. But I can’t help but be a little sad seeing my local paper trying to emulate these guys:
Update: as of 4pm, I see the Citizen has already made a number of fixes over the course of the day. A few typefaces and design elements have magically neatened themselves up. So this is a work in progress – and hopefully it will only continue to get better. But I’m interested in your first take. What do you think of the new direction? Please leave a comment!