Jon Wile on redesigning the American City Business Journals

Wile_JonTell us a little about the American City Business Journals.
ACBJ is located in 43 cities across the country, 40 of which have a weekly print edition. We specialize in delivering business news to executives through digital products (web, mobile, tablet, email), print and networking/award events. The company was very successfully run for a long time by former Dow Jones president Ray Shaw and now his son, Whitney, is CEO. We are headquartered in Charlotte.
In your role as creative director you’re based in Charlotte, but you have publications all over. How is your role different than that of a “traditional” creative director?
The role has similarities and differences to that of a “traditional” CD job. Design, photography and branding are at the forefront of my job every day across all platforms. I’ve worked hard in my first 10 months to improve our visual sensibilities and unite our individual brands, but there is still a lot of work to be done, especially on the training side. With so many markets — all of which have slightly different staff structures, news products and business goals — it’s like herding cats … and they’re really smart cats. One thing I’ve learned is to focus on things in front of me, slowly chipping away at the larger goal. If I constantly thought about redesigning all the papers, I would drive myself mad.
Describe the transition from 1A designer to creative director. Do you miss news design?
Leaving any job requires some bit of transition and adjustment, but I hit the ground running on Day 1 with ACBJ and never looked back. I’ve thrived my entire career by pushing myself and trying to learn every day, and this job fills those slots very well for me. The (Washington) Post is a great place to work and learn; it prepared me for the challenges at ACBJ. I’ve learned so much at ACBJ already through the cross-department and cross-platform work, not to mention all the redesigns.

Right now ACBJ is going through a series of redesigns, what led to that?

We were a print-first media company and that had to change. Led by my boss, Emory Thomas (Chief Content Officer), ACBJ hired Mario Garcia to help architect this cultural revolution and out of that came the creation of my role as creative director, which previously didn’t exist in the company. Now we are turning our local Business Journals into digital-first news operations, and part of the trickle down effect of that involves print redesigns. We’ve found a sweet spot of being great at digital while improving our print product at the same time. A large part of the print redesign involves finding workflow and design efficiencies, improving our production process and becoming better story-tellers. And if you look closely at the print redesign it has a more “digitized” reading experience to reflect the changing consumption habits of today’s readers.

An inside spread from the June 14 edition of the Washington Business Journal.

When you took the job, did you know you’d have the opportunity to work through a company-wide redesign alongside Garcia Media? Did the redesign opportunity make the job more appealing?

Yes, I knew Garcia Media was on board and that was a huge draw for me, but not for the obvious reasons. ACBJ’s investment in Mario told me they were serious about visual journalism and completing this massive project. ACBJ had very little, if any, visual tradition and the challenge of building one really excited me. And Mario has been great to work with, consistently providing feedback, input and critiques for us.

How many redesigns have launched so far, and how many do you have left to go? 

Our team of editors took nearly a year to look at everything in the Silicon Valley newsroom — staffing, content, products, platforms and more — before coming up with the new digital-first model. We launched the new model/redesign at the beginning of the year. Once we saw success in Silicon Valley, we started rolling out to other markets this summer in Washington, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Kansas City. This week is Portland’s turn. After that, there’s only 34 more to go!
How does the partnership between ACBJ and Garcia Media work? 
Mario and one of his art directors (Reed Reibstein) were very influential in developing our core philosophy, content structures and design templates. They visited Silicon Valley multiple times and held nearly a dozen workshops with our team of editors. After formulating a base template/roadmap for the project, we’ve been able to customize and bend it to the needs of the local markets. Our team of editors have done lots of company-wide training since the beginning of the year to prepare for the redesign, focusing mostly on the content and story-telling pieces. I commonly tell editors and publishers that the redesign is merely the “bow on top.” We do individual training with each market and then on the week of the redesign launch, I visit the newsroom to make sure things go smoothly and put the final pieces in place.
I’m sure with each launch, you learn something new that impacts the next one. Can you share some of the lessons learned?

The biggest thing I’ve learned: Changing legacy and culture is a long, hard process. Becoming a digital-first media company requires us to think and act differently, which hasn’t been easy at times. Our CEO, Whitney Shaw, told a group of editors last week that ‘I don’t expect us to be perfect in the process and it’s OK to make mistakes.” That type of vision, understanding and support is vital to the success of this project.

The biggest advantage for me: Seeing how all the different markets operate, then sharing best practices with everyone. These practices can be something simple in workflow or a new trick in InDesign. When you start multiplying efficiencies out over 40 markets, the time savings are very powerful and that allows designers and editors to focus more time on content and story-telling.

The January 25 cover of Silicon Valley Business Journal.

How do you make sure each publication has a unique visual identity, while still maintaining an overall unified look?

We tell the markets that this project is 60% formula and 40% surprise, and that it’s their job to focus on the surprise. Most of that surprise revolves around content decisions and the majority of the pieces set in stone are design-related (logos, typography, style sheets, color palettes). Every market determines its beat and staff structures, content coverage plans, print sequencing, special sections, etc.
What has your involvement been with the digital components of the redesign? 
I’ve worked with our UX Director Will Hortman throughout this process to make sure everything we do in print translates to digital, and vice versa. We tweaked our home page a few months ago and have more plans for changes to desktop web, as well as mobile and email products, coming soon. The goal is to tie all the pieces together visually through color, typography and branding so that our consumers know they are interacting with a Business Journal product regardless of the platform or product.
What has been the best part of the process? The worst?
The best part is working with the journalists in our local markets and seeing them thrive in this new digital-first environment. There have been great success stories that make me so proud to be a part of ACBJ and this project. The majority of reader feedback continues to be overwhelmingly positive.
Another great part has been our continued investment in visual journalism. When other media companies are cutting back, we’re replacing or adding these positions in our newsrooms. Currently we have openings for Lead Designers in San Francisco and Baltimore as well as newly created photographer positions in Wichita and Raleigh. The worst part is not having enough time. I always want to do more individual coaching and hands-on training, but it’s tough with the scope and scale of this project.
How do you imagine the day-to-day of your job will change after the last redesign launches?
There’s so much training to be done on a number of different topics, plus the product development pieces will never stop. We need to get better and develop in a lot of areas, but based on the success I’ve seen so far, I have no doubt that we will thrive in those areas.
(Kyle Ellis is a designer for CNN Digital and digital director for the Society For News Design.)