Fontline Battles

The redesigned Tribune looked so willfully gray and awkward when it appeared last March that its homeliness suggested a philosophical statement. I told someone it seemed Amish.

The typefaces were ungainly and commonplace, and there was too much type on every page, none of it arranged with grace. The Tribune didn’t look like Chicago; it looked like Peoria and Wichita. People I heard from were saying the same thing.

But what of it? I’d disliked every new design I’d seen that replaced something familiar, be it a newspaper, a car, or a cereal box. Sure enough, as time went by I forgot what the old Tribune looked like.

But last month put everything about the paper to an extraordinary test, and for five weeks of war and terror I’ve unconsciously compared the Tribune to the two other dailies that lie on my kitchen table each morning. The Sun-Times produced a formula spectacularly right for a tabloid: a massive, all-caps headline across the front page and a big color picture below it, with a cluster of smaller heads directing us to the pages of related stories inside, pages labeled “Terror in America” and then “America Fights Back.” The New York Times, confronting huge international, national, and local stories that were one and the same, looked like it read–cool, comprehensive, meditative, and grave. The Tribune–and this is absolutely not a judgment on its content–appeared inhibited by comparison, a paper covering a story it couldn’t put a visual stamp on.

“I’d define it as a paper without a personality,” says Susan Mango Curtis, who teaches design at the Medill School of Journalism and wasn’t speaking specifically of the Tribune in wartime. “It’s bland and has no personality and doesn’t represent Chicago. Chicago has got flavor–it’s got a very spicy, multicultural environment–and the paper doesn’t depict it.”

The new design was driven by the Tribune’s decision to shrink the width of its pages by an inch. It’s an economy that’s swept the industry–though the New York Times has resisted–and Curtis will tell you that remaking a paper to fit a narrower page is no simple thing to do and that some dailies have failed disastrously at it. The Tribune is no disaster, and the new format has its virtues. But they’re not aesthetic.

Introducing the new paper in the March 18 Perspective section, the Tribune called it a “complete redesign.” But for better or worse, it wasn’t. The body typeface, Nimrod, more comfortable than elegant, remained the same. New headline fonts were designed exclusively for the Tribune, but they were variations of the old Century, a typeface dating back almost 30 years at the paper. “I guess Century’s not as distinctive as the fonts that the Wall Street Journal and New York Times use,” says design consultant Lucie Lacava, who worked on the project, “but there was no way we could change that. They didn’t want to change who they were. They didn’t want to look like any other paper but themselves.”

Focus groups, according to Lacava, who sat in on several, said the same thing: people liked the paper they knew. So a lot of it was kept. The nameplate remained essentially the same, the blue background merely darkened a little and the Old English lettering made slightly more ornate. The section banners switched to Eclipse, a new typeface not as dramatically different as it looked. “It’s a high-contrast, Art Deco-ish sans that appears nicely crafted but thoroughly out of place in a newspaper (way too elegant and really odd alongside the Century heads),” wrote an on-line critic. But Eclipse was actually derived from Century–it’s like Century without the serifs. “I think it’s distinctive,” says Lacava, “and it also maybe reflects the mix of architectural styles that are present in Chicago.”

Though the pages became narrower, six columns remained to the page, with six stories now instead of five on the front page. The new pages felt dense, and they were. Even the gutters–the white space between the columns–had been reduced. Sacrificing white space to preserve content, the Tribune paid a price. “If you try to get in as much as before it’s going to be a little gray,” says Lacava.

Stacy Sweat, associate managing editor for design and graphics, headed the design team, working closely with editor Ann Marie Lipinski and with Lacava, who flew in periodically from Montreal. But a steering committee also consisted of the deputy managing editors for news and features, the photography boss, the newsroom’s technology whiz, and senior design editor Tony Majeri, who in 1982 had created the blue background for the nameplate. “The editorial department drove the design of the newspaper,” says Sweat. And that’s where Susan Mango Curtis thinks the Tribune made a mistake. “They had too many chiefs and not enough Indians. The problem is they didn’t let a designer do it.”

And not just any designer–Lacava. “Oh my God, the girl can design her butt off,” says Curtis. “I was so excited when I found out she was doing it. But she wasn’t doing it–just helping.”

Curtis is treasurer of the Society for News Design, a trade organization with more than 2,500 members in 50 countries. Lacava is president. Last June an international panel of SND judges that included Tony Majeri selected the world’s “best-designed newspapers.” Among the largest, three were chosen–dailies in Hartford, Connecticut, and Berlin, Germany, and Canada’s National Post. Lacava designed the National Post from scratch in 1998, and though you might snicker at an organization she heads honoring a newspaper she created, she wasn’t president when SND gave the Post 28 design awards two months after it was launched.

The Post was a dream assignment. There was no heritage to accommodate, no continuity to maintain, no staff of old-timers with notions of their own. “There was no history whatsoever,” Lacava tells me. Conrad Black, who owns the Sun-Times, wanted to dazzle his native Canada with a paper that brimmed with substance and looked terrific. “For the first few months I worked on it pretty much on my own,” she says. “Then, once we had established a look, they hired–I also helped them hire–design directors, who in turn helped me complete the design.”

Lacava won’t speak against her experience at the Tribune, but it was very different. “Essentially, they have enough staff and talent at the Tribune to be able to handle a redesign on their own,” she says, “but they wanted me to guide them through it and propose things. They weren’t really into changing the look of the paper. They wanted to both keep up with the times and be themselves.”

“Lucie has a very strong typographical background,” says Curtis, “and the type doesn’t depict that. She has a very good sense of white space, and the pages are full–there’s no room to breathe. Somebody in that newsroom wanted something very newsy.”

That shouldn’t surprise us–or disappoint us either. Discussing the paper’s typefaces with me, Sweat says nothing about beauty. She praises Nimrod as “very legible.” She explains that the new Century fonts allow the Tribune to choose among six “weights” of headline type instead of two, in order “to add hierarchy to the news.” The weightier the headline is, the more important the news must be.

This hierarchy is what everyone at the Tribune seems to value most in the new design. Managing editor James O’Shea is clear about his misgivings. “Before, when I had to feature our own story, I felt the old design would let me get more excited about it,” says O’Shea. “When we had an enterprise story like the death penalty, it was easier to take an event and blow it up, get excited about it, and using graphics and headlines really make it sizzle.”

But though the new look cost him his “design tricks,” he continues, “this is easier in reflecting the relative weight and value of news. It’s easier to reflect big news stories in their different layers of importance and relevance.”

Says Sweat, “What we’re trying to do is modulate the news.” Says Majeri, “We have a newspaper that has more flexible tools to allow us to raise and lower our voices more than before.”

But while resolving a modulatory deficiency I’m guessing few readers were aware it had, the Tribune let new trouble in the back door. It assiduously tried to defend its visual identity, but lost it. “It’s a return to the traditional newspaper that looks like a newspaper, but it doesn’t have any style of its own,” says Curtis. “You couldn’t take this paper and cut off their flag and throw it on the floor and people would say, ‘Oh, that’s the Tribune!'”

Which matters, not only when you’re looking at a paper but when you’re reading it.

Muzzles All Around

The good news is that America’s mightiest newspapers say they think we can handle the truth. The bad news is that they’re going to take their time giving it to us.

Last January the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune and the other Tribune Publishing newspapers, the Associated Press, and several other news organizations formed a consortium to examine Florida’s 180,000 uncounted presidential ballots and try to determine for the record whether George Bush or Al Gore carried the state.

To do the scut work, the consortium hired the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago, which by the end of May had collected the raw data and by September had organized the data into a form that could be turned over to the media. Under their agreement, NORC would give the consortium two weeks after receiving the data to study the numbers and publish its conclusions. At that point NORC would be free to make the research public, which it intended to do by posting it on-line.

But the research is still sitting in Hyde Park because, at least for the moment, the consortium doesn’t want it. “September 11 trumped everything,” said NORC spokesperson Julie Antelman this week. “We were told [the media] didn’t back away from it–it’s a big story for them–but after September 11 they didn’t have the resources to do the analysis or report it in the way they feel it necessary to do.”

The members of the consortium haven’t demonstrated much of a sense of obligation to report on the story they dropped. But Canada’s Globe and Mail ran a long article last week that raised the obvious question–“whether the country’s biggest media conglomerates are suppressing news that potentially could tarnish the image of Mr. Bush in the midst of the President’s war on terrorism.” The Globe located a “media ethics specialist” to declare, “I am so chilled by what is going on.”

The AP carried a story in late September that said the review of the Florida ballots had been “delayed indefinitely,” but only because priorities had changed. In a squib at the end of his media column this past Monday in the Washington Post, Howard Kurtz wrote that contrary to the “conspiracy theories bouncing around the Internet,” the consortium intends to get back to the project in time to produce its findings by the end of the year.

If the consortium never asks NORC to turn over the data, will NORC ever be able to make it public? I asked Antelman. She didn’t know.

News Bites

A letter came in from a reader who thought that if I were “interested in the issue of free speech and media bias during wartime” I might be interested in him. It seems he’d been participating in an antibombing demonstration downtown on October 8 when a passerby ripped up his sign that said “The harvest of bombs is a crop of bin Ladens.” He responded with a shout of “Shame on you, sir,” whereupon the passerby threatened to punch him. A TV crew caught some of this, and the altercation appeared the next morning on WGN television in a form that outraged the demonstrator, as he believed it made him out to be the instigator. He wrote the station asking it to both broadcast and publish a retraction. And he provided Hot Type with a tape of the newscast.

As usual, television gave us a glimpse of the confrontation so brief as to be incoherent. A fist was clenched, scarcely audible hot words were spoken, but until I’d watched the tape a few times I wasn’t even sure who was the demonstrator and who the pedestrian. Big deal, I thought.

Except that an offscreen reporter told us, “The protest nearly turned violent when a war supporter tore the sign of a demonstrator. That sentiment, though, seems to reflect the rest of the country. Polls show the American public’s overwhelming support to the decision to go to war.”

When the newscast cut back to the studio, anchor Larry Potash promptly regaled his sidekicks by cracking, “It’s always good to see the peace protesters starting a fight,” and when the guffaws rolled, he added mockingly, “Don’t hit me, man!” First Potash contradicted his reporter, and then he contradicted himself. The only thing the newscast was clear about was that the demonstrators deserved to be ridiculed.

William Hazelgrove, a novelist who does his writing in the attic of Oak Park’s Hemingway House, reacted to the World Trade Center attacks by writing an essay and posting it on the Web site, where he publishes a monthly column. John Weaver, who runs the literary site, was then inspired to solicit essays from other writers, and when he had more than 30 of them he suggested that Hazelgrove assemble a book.

When I talked to Hazelgrove the other day, he said that Scott Turow, Roger Ebert, Dave Barry, and Bob Greene had signed on and that he was after more big names, especially writers living in New York. “My agent said, ‘We can do this, but we’ve got to get the big writers,'” Hazelgrove told me. “Writing a novel’s a snap compared to this. First you have a blank wall of how to get hold of these people, then when you do you have to sound legitimate and not like some schmo with a crazy idea.”

But he said the Hemingway Foundation was helping him knock on doors, and the Ragdale Foundation had offered to do the same. “They’re going to get me Frank McCourt’s E-mail and phone number. They’re going to get me Sara Paretsky. As a one-man band, it’s difficult.”

Hazelgrove said this week he received about 150 essays, far more than he could ever use, many of them arriving over the transom from unknown writers thanks to publicity he’d already got. He compared ones he’d read, in their “wondering and mournful quality,” to World War I poetry. “The language they used at the time didn’t do justice to seeing all these people die, so they came up with a new language. It should be a good book. It could be a profound book.”

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