Tiffany Grandstaff and Tim Ball on the Digital First Media redesign
Tiffany Grandstaff is leading Digital First Media’s company-wide print redesign initiative aimed at bringing a common visual identity and improved design to DFM’s portfolio of daily newspapers. The team includes Tim Ball, formerly of The Washington Post. Here, they share their experiences working on a broad-scale redesign.
What can you tell me about Digital First Media and your role, Tiffany?
Tiffany: Digital First Media jointly operates MediaNews Group and 21st Century Media (formerly Journal Register Company) and their 70+ daily newspapers. For almost two years, I have been working for DFM to create and launch a company-wide print redesign.
Tell me about Digital First’s corporate-wide redesign initiative. What has the process been like from the initial brainstorming and prototyping to the launches?
Tiffany: DFM wanted a common print design to satisfy three goals: Provide a common architecture to increase page sharing and increase national advertising opportunities; improve print workflow and streamline production; and to improve the overall design of the newspapers.
The project started when Dave Butler, Bay Area News Group editor and vice president, asked Alex Fong, former deputy design director of BANG, and I to create a quick prototype of how one of our smaller papers would look in the style of the Mercury News. We had 24 hours to do this. DFM liked what they saw and asked for some additional pages. Eventually this evolved into Alex and I being removed from the daily paper to focus on the redesign for all of DFM.
There were some parameters: The design should mimic the look of the Mercury News. It should feel like an American newspaper. It should be easy to execute for a variety of publication sizes and experience levels.
Within that framework, we were given a lot of freedom to brainstorm what this design could be. We worked with the Font Bureau to identify typography that set the right tone and that wasn’t being used by another large publication in our footprint. We established a palette of colors that we anticipated would reproduce well across a variety of presses. We tried to build the “design” into the furniture so that the body of the pages could display local stories and photography in a clean, simple way.
Alex and I spent a lot of our time imagining how the design could fulfill the goals of this project and also the goals of DFM at large, which include community engagement and a strong focus on digital. We built pages with content that could serve as a backdrop for national advertising. An example of this is page A2, which we branded “Start Your Day Here.” Starting this fall, the page will be designed and edited once and shared across all properties with an accompanying national ad. We also created a few unique advertising spots, such as a “sponsored” item in a section-front rail. We considered the logistics of how content would be shared, including whether specs needed to be common on certain content pieces. We built in dedicated spots for promotion of community engagement events and online extras.
We brainstormed and prototyped and brainstormed and prototyped until we had almost an entire newspaper, and all of our cool ideas, mocked up in some fashion. Throughout the process we sent PDFs to the top editors at DFM for feedback. Once we had a pretty solid design in place, Jim Brady, editor-in-chief of DFM, began sharing it with the newsrooms through a series of roadshows. He also led webinars, which provided a forum for Alex and I to explain the design and answer questions.
What was the experience like working on such a broad-scale redesign? How many people do you have working on the redesign team?
Tiffany: What makes this project unique is the number of publications and the variation in newspaper size and experience levels. While the design fundamentals are common, the design isn’t one-size-fits-all. We created templates that cater to the diverse content needs of our publications. For example, there are multiple libraries for Local and Sports covers: a set of pages for papers with standalone sections and a set of inside “covers” that don’t jump. We have solutions for things small papers need, like a Community page. We have things big papers need, like the framework for projects presentations and photo pages. In addition, our team builds regional libraries for each publication, which include site-specific templates for unique pages or sections. There are templates for almost everything. However, the templates are often a starting point. The company believes that the news should still dictate how a page comes together.
Our vice president for print production, Frank Scandale, is often the liaison between our design team and the newsrooms. With Frank, we do a pre-launch meeting with each site to explain the redesign and talk through the publication’s content needs. This is most often done in person. Our team is on-site for training and launches to teach the design. We also communicate with sites via email and phone before and after they launch. Our team includes: Tim Ball, formerly of the Washington Post; Emily Johnson, formerly of the Alabama Media Group; Amanda Reiter, formerly of China Daily; Caroline Ruse, formerly of the Mercury News; and Brad Walters, formerly of the Washington Post.
We built and continue to manage an online resource called DFM Design Lab, which includes a style guide, images of all page templates and how-to articles. We have found this to be a valuable tool as it facilitates communication between our team and the newsrooms and provides local users with an in-depth, up-to-date training manual.
Tim, tell me a little more about your role on team.
Tim: Everyone on this team is a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, and I’m no exception. Primarily, I’m the design/visual guy, and we have others on the team who are much more adept at training, on-site development and the technical aspects of the system. But we all do a bit of everything when launches are happening. Aside from helping in those other roles, my design focus has generally been on developing new nameplates for papers as they prepare to launch (with assists from Alex Fong), helping to generate templates for pages that are specific to an individual property and most recently, coming up with a distinctive, different look for our weekly newspapers, the first of which is slated to launch in a couple months.
How do you manage reconciling the aesthetics of so many individual papers within a corporate-wide redesign? Were any specific steps taken to maintain papers’ individual identities?
Tiffany: Many of our publications were in dire need of a visual upgrade, so there wasn’t a strong desire to maintain the current aesthetics. The company was excited about livening up all papers with a new look. The redesign provides a framework to present local content. Local stories and local photos still dictate the feel of each day’s newspaper. The local identity is also showcased by what’s on the page – the content. Our editors still edit, our reporters still report. This project is about providing a better platform to showcase that work.
How has the launch process for the redesigns gone? Any lessons learned that impact the overall redesign moving forward?
Tiffany: We are launching a new CMS (Saxotech) at the same time as the redesign. As a result, we’ve done a section-by-section launch at most papers. This has given us the opportunity to work closely with the designers on-site. We continue to tweak both our Saxotech and our design training with each launch. We haven’t made any large-scale tweaks to the design so far. We have added template options and made some small changes to the overall setup to better accommodate user needs.
Tim: I’ve been involved in both the launches of the Southern California papers (where the flagship is the Los Angeles Daily News) and the Texas-New Mexico papers (where the flagship is the El Paso Times). L.A. was the first group to launch, so all hands were on deck, and it was a learning process not just for the newsrooms involved, but for our team as well. On site, the members of our team take on a variety of roles — splitting time between training staff that has yet to start on the system, troubleshooting for staff that is producing live pages, fielding requests from newsroom leaders for new treatments and templates and trying to keep up with the flow of work happening off-site on other projects.
Has your work focused primarily on redesigns of your print products, or have you had any input on digital aspects of the redesign?
Tiffany: DFM is also launching a company-wide web design. Sites with the new design include denverpost.com and mer
What were your biggest obstacles in the redesign process?
Tiffany: The technical aspects of the project were the most challenging. We had to think hard about how our design would work within the framework of Saxotech.
Tim: As far as obstacles, other than some bumps in the road — and the tendency for timelines to constantly change on a project of this magnitude — there haven’t been any big ones. There are frustrations, as with any job in any newsroom, but I feel good about what our team is accomplishing each week.
Tim, you have experience working for news organizations across the country, most recently The Washington Post. Did any of your prior experience influence how you approached the Digital First redesigns?
Tim: Generally speaking, I think I draw from my prior experience everywhere whenever I start a new job — just as, I’m sure, we all do to some extent. But as great as my experience was at The Post, I’m leaning a little more on the broad experience I have working for small papers on this project. I think if I’d only ever worked in a giant newsroom, it would be a little more difficult to identify with what’s happening in newsrooms that are considerably smaller.
Visually speaking, much of the design groundwork for these redesigns was done before I came on, so with the exception of the weeklies project I mentioned, I’m not drawing on much specific design experience day to day.
All that said, probably the greatest asset I brought to this team was the experience of doing exactly this for a few months late last year — leading the design desk of Advance Publications’ three Alabama papers last year as they did essentially this very same thing: switched to Saxotech, centralized a production desk, and redesigned all their papers in one fell swoop.
How has the reception been of the redesign, both from individual newsrooms and your readership?
Tiffany: Overall the response has been positive. The redesign has been an opportunity for many newsrooms to refresh and reorganize their content. In many of the papers you’ll now find permanent homes for reader favorites. And some editors are using the redesign as an incentive to enhance their coverage with new features.
The biggest complaint from readers is the size of the body copy. While the new body type is very readable, it is different and, in some cases smaller, than some of our publications’ old type. We’ve actually done a company-wide increase of the body type twice since we first launched.
Tiffany, You’ve worked with the San Jose Mercury News since 2006. How have you managed your career? Any advice for young visual journalists at the beginning stages of their career?
Tiffany: My role at the Mercury News has evolved since I joined the paper from the Charlotte Observer in 2006. With each new position, I get the opportunity to work with and learn from new people. The Mercury News has some extremely smart, talented and dedicated journalists, so I am lucky in that regard. As I took on greater leadership roles at the Merc, I expanded my interactions with people outside the newsroom. In my role with DFM, I work with all departments at both small and large papers. New challenges provide new learning opportunities.
Staying with the same organization allows you to build some really strong relationships, which is particularly important when you’re no longer working in the same building.
I’ve also been fortunate to have some really great bosses who have helped forge my career path — Michael Tribble, Kevin Wendt and now Ron Kitagawa, ME/production for BANG.
My advice for young journalists is this:
— Absorb as much as you can from your colleagues.
— Don’t underestimate the opportunities that exist in your own newsroom.
— Consider your boss when you interview. Can this person help you grow?
— Enjoy where you live — if not for your first job, then for your next one. Having a life outside the office makes you a more interesting person. And we all want to work with interesting people.