Ombudsman Andrew Alexander on the response to the Post's redesign

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By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, October 25, 2009

Readers develop a deeply personal comfort level with their newspaper. It's like a friend visiting their homes each morning. They grow accustomed to its look. And when there's even a minor change in appearance, like moving the location of a comic strip, it can be upsetting.

So it should come as no surprise that hundreds of Post readers reacted strongly this week when the paper unveiled its most significant redesign in more than a decade.

The most common complaint is about the new typeface for stories. The Post chose an upgrade of Scotch Roman, used in newspapers for roughly two centuries, because it is slightly larger than the old version. But many readers -- not just seniors with degrading eyesight -- said it seems smaller.

"I gather it's 'larger' by some measure, but it also seems to have less weight or substance," e-mailed one. "Is there any real chance of having this matter revisited?"

Editors have explored increasing the density of ink so it looks less faint. But higher-density ink increases the risk that it will soak through newsprint or stain adjoining pages. "The typeface by itself should be easier to read," said Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli, adding that he hopes it is "just a matter of familiarity and people will adjust and be happy with it."

Next, the new weather layout on the back of the Metro section. Many readers said the national map is too small to read.

"I agree with them 100 percent," said Ed Thiede, a key editor on The Post's Redesign Team. The type size for cities is so small that "I can't even read 'St. Louis,' " he acknowledged. The map has been enlarged once since it was introduced. Editors say it will almost certainly be made larger.

The new Sunday WP Magazine, rolled out before this past week's changes, has drawn numerous complaints. "It's gotten too complicated," wrote reader Amy Mann of Centreville. "Everything looks like a slick advertisement. I'm having trouble finding the features I like to read."

Ironically, several editors said the fact that the magazine is attracting more ads -- a key goal of its redesign -- might make it seem cluttered to some readers. "They're not used to seeing advertisements in the magazine," said Raju Narisetti, one of the Post's two managing editors. "There used to be just pages and pages of text."

Adding reporters' e-mail addresses at the bottom of stories responds to frequent reader exasperation over not knowing how to contact Post journalists. But already, several readers have complained to me that reporters haven't responded to their e-mails. It's a chronic problem in newsrooms. Many busy reporters are overwhelmed by e-mails. But too many simply refuse, or are too lazy, to respond. With newspaper survival at stake, that's suicidal.

Today, hundreds of thousands of Sunday-only Post subscribers are seeing the changes for the first time. That will spark a new round of comments, pro and con.

So far, I've been impressed by how The Post has handled the changes. In the past, I've written critically when The Post failed to adequately explain changes in the ever-shrinking paper. But Monday's eight-page tabloid "Redesign Owner's Manual" did a good job of describing the changes and their rationale. And editors have been responding personally to readers who took the time to comment.

My biggest surprise is how few readers offered their views. Many, urged to share their thoughts by e-mailing ideas@washpost.com, sent lengthy comments that reflected a genuine devotion and commitment to the newspaper. But they totaled fewer than the more than 750 who contacted The Post in the spring after editors eliminated the "Judge Parker" comic strip (it was restored).

Cynics will speculate that readers are losing interest in the paper. Yet despite the bleak financial situation facing the money-losing Post, circulation has held relatively steady compared with industry trends. Latest published figures put circulation at 622,000 daily and 858,100 on Sundays. New audited figures are to be released Monday, but they are not expected to change dramatically. Last week, The Post had fewer than 10 cancellations due to the design changes.

Brauchli also was surprised that there weren't more reader comments, and he offered a theory.

"I think people are more receptive to change in newspapers than they've ever been," he said. "They know that media are changing at a phenomenal rate.

"If you can make a case that change improves the experience of readers," he said, "there's a willingness to try it."

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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