Whig-Standard fights battle for new readers

The daily newspaper that services the historic city of Kingston and the surrounding southeastern Ontario region - The Kingston Whig-Standard - is struggling against the same market forces that are bedevilling dailies across most of North America.Up against TVThe delivery of...

The daily newspaper that services the historic city of Kingston and the surrounding southeastern Ontario region – The Kingston Whig-Standard – is struggling against the same market forces that are bedevilling dailies across most of North America.

Up against TV

The delivery of news in printed form is up against the flash and ever increasing speed of electronic media, and young people in particular – a consumer group significant in itself, but also the readers of tomorrow – are migrating away from the daily experience.

While newspaper publishers in cities across the continent are fighting the same battle, there is a certain poignancy about the Whig’s story.

Pedigree

This is a newspaper with a long and distinguished pedigree. It is Canada’s oldest daily, until several years ago one of the few independently owned dailies, and a newspaper with a reputation and a presence that stretches far beyond the immediate community it serves.

With a resource base modest in comparison to its larger metropolitan cousins, the Whig has managed to perform on a big city scale, capturing national attention for investigative reporting both in its own market and internationally, as well as setting national standards for reporting and criticism of the arts.

Like so many other dailies, the Whig has been stung by a drop in advertising revenue, and, in its case, hot competition from weekly and give-away alternatives that have sprung up in recent years and eaten away at its grassroots advertising and readership base.

Now the Southam Newspapers-owned Whig is fighting back.

The paper has gone through a total makeover and has switched from an evening to morning paper. Both changes were introduced with the Sept. 26 issue.

Maximize resources

‘In general, we are facing the challenge in an era of downsizing to make the best use of our resources to meet the needs of the marketplace,’ says Whig Editor Harvey Schachter.

That meant developing a design and incorporating production efficiencies that would make the best use of the Whig’s new $3 million-plus printing facility.

But it also meant facing up to the incursions of local weeklies and the constant competition for readers from bigger dailies, Toronto papers in particular.

Three niches

Schachter points out that in Toronto the mainstream dailies serve three main market niches, from low-, middle- and high-end.

‘We have to be all three to our readers,’ he says.

In the Whig’s case, the direction it had to go was back to the nuts and bolts of its own local community.

‘The objective was to move back to the middle ground, without losing what we had achieved at the high end,’ Schachter says. ‘Basically, to become a better community newspaper.’

This objective translated into increased news coverage of the regions with local freelancers, better identification of regional news in the paper, and, in the immediate community, focussing on what Schachter calls ‘the nitty-gritty.’

He says the Whig began to concentrate on ‘the achievements of people, which we did well in sports, but weren’t doing enough of in the rest of the paper.’

In order to appeal more directly to its younger audience, the Whig has introduced a Generation X editorial writer, who will produce opinion pieces from the perspective and in the language of youth, and such features as music reviews will be increased and ‘treated as seriously as that generation takes music,’ Schachter says.

The research that went into the re-examination of the Whig included intense focus group sessions headed by a Minneapolis firm specializing in newspaper research, plus a lot of field work by the editorial staff.

Editors were given the names of readers who had cancelled their subscriptions, and reporters were each given three readers to interview, and they were asked to produce a one-page summary of their findings.

These were compiled into a booklet and it was discussed at an all-day voluntary session held on a Saturday.

Out of that came the Whig action plan.

‘People were saying that we had a sombre, grey paper that was not very inviting and certainly wasn’t saying, `Read me,’ ‘ Schachter says.

‘We knew we had to become more open, more inviting and more contemporary,’ he says.

The design challenge went to the Toronto firm Ink, headed by graphic designer Jackie Young.

Young has been on the leading edge of Apple-based design since so-called desktop publishing began making its way into newspaper publishing some 10 years ago.

It was in part Young’s understanding of this technology that helped win him the assignment, the Whig having converted to the Macintosh system for editorial production.

Young says his overall design challenge was to try to win young people back – which meant opening up the look and giving it more visual excitement – without going so far as to alienate the more conservative core readership.

From a merchandising point of view, the covers needed to be more aggressive.

‘Newspaper editorial people aren’t that conscious of what people see as they walk by a newspaper box,’ Young says.

‘To get people to stop and want to buy the paper, we needed to go to the magazine technique of overselling to get people into the text,’ he says.

‘The design challenge was to lift up the quality image.

‘So we gave it some color that would modernize the look, but also break up the page and make it look more inviting.

‘We also gave the readers more access points so they could get into the paper more easily. There were more items introduced onto the front page.’

Young says the design also helps the editorial people work more efficiently and elegantly with each page.

The introduction of color had to be carefully handled.

For the older readers, too much color would make the paper feel too bright.

The use of color in other redesigns, most notably USA Today, can give the wrong impression, a down-market feel. If that were conveyed it would certainly undermine the objective of registering quality.

‘USA Today is the second newspaper for anyone who reads newspapers,’ Young says.

Too much color also would give the impression that the Whig was being too aggressive.

It had to be designed to appeal to a middle class. It had to be easy to read and it had to suggest that there was more in the paper to read, even though there wasn’t a significant change in the copy itself.

Sophistication

‘The look needed sophistication and balance,’ Young says. ‘It needed to be elegant and unlike any other newspaper.’

The visual statement began with a change in the masthead, which has gone from a heavy, upper-lower case script similar to that of the traditional New York Times, to block letters that have been opened to give an airier feel.

And the wording of the masthead has been modified to draw attention to the paper’s modernization and its commitment to the local community.

‘The Whig-Standard’ has been changed to ‘the kingston whig-standard,’ and the descriptor beneath the masthead has been reworded from ‘Canada’s Oldest Daily Newspaper’ to ‘Proud To Serve The Greater Kingston Community.’

For a typeface, Young selected the classic newspaper type, Bodoni, and gave it some air.

Design changes

He increased the weight of the serifs and opened the face, making it stronger and easier to produce on newsprint.

‘We’ve taken a classic typeface and made it relevant to the ’90s,’ Young says.

‘The readers get the sense that the paper is easier to read, it still has authority, and it’s been retailored specifically for them,’ he says.

To stress the community feeling throughout the paper, Young developed special graphics for parts of the city and individual communities outside of the city of Kingston.

‘We wanted to take some of the laziness out of the paper and give it more relevance and also a sense of urgency,’ Young says.

‘Basically, we wanted people to feel that they were getting all the information they needed, but more quickly,’ he says.

‘The layering of editorial with sidebars and the info-bites was designed to adhere to the way people read newspapers today.’

If there was a model in Young’s mind as he set about conceiving the look it was ‘a sophisticated European newspaper,’ which Young suggests has taste and modernity without going to the extreme established by USA Today almost 10 years ago and copied by many urban American papers since.

Young describes that look, characterized by lots of color and big headlines as being ‘marketing-driven.’

The Whig design, he says was editorially-, community- and reader-driven.’

‘We kicked up the typeface a bit to elevate it and to take from the old,’ Young says. ‘And we reconstructed the paper according to the community.

‘We even took into account the scale of the buildings in Kingston, which themselves have very much a European feel,’ he says.

‘This couldn’t be just another modern North American newspaper, imposing contemporary newspaper design techniques.

‘This had to be a design for a city that hasn’t been as affected by North American city growth patterns. We had to be subtle and careful.’

The stories were broken up with sidebar summaries of fact, which Young describes as ‘info-graphics.’

The paper has also become more compartmentalized, with bigger and bolder section fronts, and in some spots more relevant for day-to-day living.

Page two, for instance, carries the major read of the day, but also a mixture of quick news about what is going on, an index, the weather forecast and helpful little tidbits such as a recipe for a speedy dinner.

The rationale behind converting to morning delivery was to increase the paper’s ‘shelf-life,’ Schachter says.

‘It brings the community together and becomes a focal point,’ he says. ‘It also conforms more closely to the natural news cycle.

‘It also means that what’s our news remains our news,’ Schachter says.