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Rocky Designs

For decades, the Rocky Mountain News has been a model of clean, effective newspaper design, especially compared with the often unsightly Denver Post. The paper's reputation for openness, warmth and reader friendliness is well-deserved. So on the surface, the decision to redesign the Rocky appears to be a classic case of fixing what's not broken.

Predictably, News editor John Temple disagrees. "The paper was sectionalized in 1993, but if you go back to the choice of typefaces, that was 25 years ago, which is a really long time," he says. "So we wanted to try and make the paper more useful, more valuable -- to give readers an experience they will want to have again. We wanted a design that would appeal to a reader who lives in a contemporary world that isn't the same as it was when the previous version was designed."

At the same time, Temple didn't want so radical a redesign that subscribers would no longer recognize their Rocky. "We worked with Roger Black, who designed the Baltimore Sun and the Toronto Star and the San Francisco Examiner, which is a paper I particularly love. And Roger wasn't interested in trying to change the paper. He wanted to help us better be what we already were."

To that end, Temple goes on, "we asked ourselves, 'Who are we?' And the answers we came up with were: 'bold,' 'energetic,' 'dynamic.' Then we asked, 'How do we articulate that visually through the Rocky? And what is the world people are living in and looking at?' We thought about what magazines look like now. We thought about what the Internet looks like. We thought about what TV looks like. Remember that when CNN Headline News changed its look, everybody hated it -- but then everybody copied it within weeks. Sure, it was busy, but readers are living in a highly charged media environment. So we wanted to be stronger, since we already were stronger."

The design that emerged from this soul-searching was rolled out slowly over several months, with the final results appearing in mid-July -- and in this reader's opinion, it's no disaster, but it's still something of a mixed bag. Among its most positive attributes are a table of contents page inside the front cover, which directs readers to major stories as well as smaller reports they might otherwise miss, and a striking Commentary layout that ably highlights the main editorial. Also effective are new type styles that allow writers to squeeze in more words per square inch without making pages overly gray or difficult to read.

"There are only three typefaces in the entire newspaper, which is something I wanted," Temple notes. "It creates a level of consistency and professionalism that's reflective of this newspaper. When you look at some newspapers, you can tell that a designer du jour said, 'I'll use this font, and then I'll use a completely different one.' But this gives the Rocky character. What I love is that no matter what section you're in, you feel you're in the same newspaper -- and I don't necessarily feel like we were there before."

More controversial is the recurrent use of thick black rules to separate stories. They're so bold, to use Temple's adjective, that moving from one story to another is harder than before. The same rules are used to box pullquotes, and instead of giving a story air, they make it more difficult to concentrate on the piece itself. Headlines are just as heavy with ink, which can become problematic on pages filled with news briefs; the heads are so eye-catching that the paragraphs beneath them practically disappear.

Rather than fuming over these observations, Temple seems positively delighted by them. "Some people may look at it as, 'It's too busy; it hurts my eyes.' But a lot of people like that. It makes them jump. It gives the paper a bounce. And if people only read the headlines, I'm fine with that, because that can be a satisfying experiencing. The headlines are newsier; there are more words in them than there were. And the reality is, that's already how X percentage read the paper. Reading the newspaper shouldn't be a chore. I can't tell people, 'Get up. Read the newspaper. Then go off and lead your life.'"

Other alterations are more hit-or-miss. Each section now features "channels" -- narrow rectangles that run along one side of the opening pages and contain quick-hitting blurbs, trivia snippets or random flotsam. The channels work consistently well in the sports and entertainment sections, where their lightness is fitting. But the compilers of channels in the assorted news sections have struggled at times to strike a chord in harmony with the rest of the page. One particularly egregious example turned up in a recent election-page channel, which is burdened with the unfortunate moniker "The Stump"; sounds like the nickname of the one-armed man in The Fugitive. An item about a planned fundraising appearance by former vice president Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, appeared under the dopey heading "The Gores are coming! The Gores are coming!" and included the painfully forced line "The man who was almost president -- those pesky Supremes..." That ringing you hear is Diana Ross's attorney calling.

Temple concedes that his people are still getting the hang of writing for the news-oriented channels, adding, "I think it's totally legitimate to say, 'Today the tone was wrong' if it doesn't feel quite right." But he says he's gotten consistently positive comments about the innovation in general -- "and it's not just from young people. A lot of older people have said, 'What I really like about the new Rocky are these quick items.' They provide perspective, and they show that people don't only want to process information in a certain bandwidth related to news."

Another quirk is the line at the bottom of articles that jump to another page, which refer readers using the phrase "Flip to" -- as in "Flip to page 23A." Explains Temple, "We printed sample newspapers, and then a researcher spent a half-hour with people going through them. And they said, almost to a person, 'What I love about the Rocky is you just flip the pages; you can just flip through it.' And so it didn't make sense to say 'Please continue,' or 'Please follow.'We're a 'Flip to' paper. Some people in the staff didn't like it, because they thought it was too, quote, flip. But the way I looked at it was, we're trying to encourage people to write conversationally. Well, this is the readers' own language, and it gets to what the Rocky's like. We're not formal."

It's possible the Rocky will tinker with its new look over time: "A design isn't a static thing," Temple says. But he's received only a bare handful of complaints and is personally thrilled by the makeover. In his view, "It gives the paper a quicker pulse -- and that's a good thing." -- Roberts


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