For disgruntled Tribune readers, Ken Fruit of Glencoe surely said it best in a scathing note to “Voice of the People”: “I almost mistook the new look of the Tribune for ‘My Weekly Reader,'” he huffed.

Mr. Fruit, it seems, was not pleased with the Tribune’s new graphic design, which premiered July 12. The editors explained the changes in a front-page note: “With today’s editions the Tribune introduces several new typefaces. The use of these new, more legible typefaces is part of a continuing effort to serve you better by improving the typefaces’ organization, appearance and accessibility.”

Mr. Fruit isn’t buying it. “Made your type larger and your articles smaller to ‘improve your accessibility’?” his letter scoffed. “And they made the cardboard bigger and candy bars smaller to make them easier to eat. Right!”

The editors hadn’t really said that articles would be smaller. Still, Mr. Fruit isn’t the only one making unflattering comparisons. Some Sun-Times staffers are derisively referring to the new Tribune as the Daily Herald. Therese Shechter, a Tribune art director who along with senior editor Tony Majeri carried out much of the planning and execution of the redesign, has heard it compared unfavorably with USA Today and the Southtown Economist. An Evergreen Park reader wrote in to call it “an abomination and aesthetically abhorrent to read,” which indicates more than a fleeting distaste. And WBEZ’s Mara Tapp hates it so much she devoted 20 minutes of a show last week to the subject, interviewing John Twohey, senior editor and chairman of the redesign committee, and urging listeners to call in with their responses. (Most liked it.)

“I detest it!” Tapp seethed. “I find it very difficult to read, I feel it looks incredibly old-fashioned. This has a very small-town feel to it. This just doesn’t look professional.”

The naysayers, of course, have the corner on colorful comments. But Twohey says he’s received about 200 letters and phone calls, and they’re running two-to-one in favor of the new design. Typical comments praise the larger, easier-to-read type. George Harmon, head of the Medill newspaper program at Northwestern, says the move to larger print reflects a national trend, which he attributes to “the fact that the average American is aging [and] their eyesight is getting worse,” and to research that shows that younger readers like bigger print.

A random check with Tribune staffers found the new design in general, if unenthusiastic, favor. Mike Royko may have grumbled over having to lose a line or two of his column, but grumbling is so close to his normal tone of voice, it’s hard to tell. “I like it, it looks better,” he said/grumbled. Reporter Lou Carlozo said, “If you didn’t redesign papers periodically, they’d look like something they tacked on the walls of log cabins.” And Washington columnist Michael Kilian, echoing a widely held sentiment, noted “For anyone with a bit of ego, the bylines are more prominent.”

So what exactly has the Tribune done to itself, anyway? According to Twohey, it’s exchanged its old text type, a nine-point Times Roman, for a nine-point Timbo. In Timbo, the lowercase letters are taller than usual, making for an overall larger print and an “airier” look. The old Century Condensed headline type was switched to an updated version, and bylines went from Helvetica to Franklin Gothic. Certain elements like bylines and pull quotes, which had varied among different sections, have been standardized.

Graphic designer Hayward Blake, a visiting associate professor at Medill, sees qualified improvement: “The typeface is more readable because of the taller x-height,” he said, referring to the lowercase letters. “The negative part is they’re still crunching a great deal of print into the space. Also, you’ll see three or four words on one line, six words on the next pushed together. You get an erratic reading of the line. If you look at the Tempo section, in Greene’s column they use a flush-left ragged-right type, so you don’t get that letter and word spreading and you read more comfortably. . . . The problem with this new typeface is that it’s more conducive to flush-left ragged-right because the x-height is larger. It’s not a harsh criticism, but it’s not a great achievement.”

“They’ve eliminated a lot of black rules, and they’re using hairline rules to separate columns,” Blake went on. “So they’re achieving a lightness to the paper that gives the reader a little more accessibility. On the other hand . . . with the heavier lines, you kind of turn up the volume of how the paper talks to you. A New York tabloid, for instance, screams at you. They lost a little of that structural spice by turning down the volume.”

“A lot of people talk about typeface as a distinct voice, and when you change typeface you’re somewhat changing the voice,” Twohey admits. “I would ask people to let the type work on them for a couple of weeks and see if they can reach the same comfort level with the new type.”

The new type, by the way, is only the beginning. “This is the first of two phases we expect to move through,” says Twohey. “The next phase is the architecture of the paper–section formats, editorial space, get at the mission of each section, subject matter, and so on.” Some changes may start before the end of the year, but Twohey says to expect a gradual, evolutionary development.

Brace yourself, Mr. Fruit.

Searching for Gary Willis

In 1984 Garry Wills wrote an acerbic account for Vanity Fair of Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of the Sun-Times. He included observations like “Typical Murdoch stories are a profusion of beginnings, with no sense at all where one might end.” He called Murdoch executives Charles Wilson and Roger Wood “inspired Sons of Belial.” The article ran in May, and so did Wills’s last political column in the Sun-Times.

Almost a decade later, Wills’s 17th book, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America won this year’s Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. An adjunct professor of history at Northwestern, Wills lives in Evanston and continues to write an insightful, unpredictable column that’s read in over 50 cities, including New York, Detroit, Baltimore, and Dallas. But not Chicago.

Wills is hardly the typical political pundit. His Yale doctorate is in classics, and his work in American history conveys the strong impression that he knows the names and addresses of everyone who served in the Revolutionary and Civil wars, and he’d get their phone numbers too if he could. His vast knowledge of religion–gained through seminary studies–lets him easily punch holes in the self-styled theologies of people from Operation Rescue’s Randall Terry to Rush Limbaugh. But he’s as much a reporter as a professor, having covered stories from Martin Luther King’s funeral to last year’s presidential election.

Wills addresses some of the same topics as other columnists, but it’s often futile to guess where he’s going with it. We’re talking about a guy who started out at the National Review in 1957 but isn’t even on speaking terms with a conservative like George Will. (Though their names, naturally, are often confused, Will told Wills “back when we were still talking to each other” that he gets a lot of Wills’s mail.)

Here’s Wills’s singular take on the death of Pat Nixon: “The obituary notices for Mrs. Nixon provide, one hopes, the last opportunity for praising a woman because she so sacrificed herself to her husband’s ambition. . . . Mrs. Nixon was admirable by the standards she had been given. One can hail her devotion while making sure that this is not the ideal offered to young women of the future.”

And on disaster relief for midwest flood victims: “Flood relief is a kind of ‘affirmative action’ to help the disadvantaged catch up. People who do not challenge disaster relief are very fast, by contrast, to say that compensatory action for blacks or other minorities is unfair.

“Yet the economic ravages visited on the black community over centuries are more crippling than anything the Mississippi River has done to Iowans or Missourians. And the government had a hand in the past forms of legal discrimination and social pressuring. The national administration did not cause the Mississippi to overflow its banks.”

The current editorial page editors at the Tribune and Sun-Times both praise Wills, but offer scant hope that his column will resurface here anytime soon.

“Believe me, there was once no more passionate reader of Garry Wills’s columns,” says the Tribune’s N. Don Wycliff. “But I get the sense now that it’s one of many things that he does, and it doesn’t consume enough of his efforts to be as good as it once was. There isn’t that flash of insight that there used to be, and that you get when you read his books.”

“In choosing the columnists, my priority is replacing as many syndicated columnists as possible with local people,” says the Sun-Times’s Mark Hornung. “I’ve got a couple of people now that I’m grooming for that. That’s why I have not chosen to take another look at Garry Wills. It’s just a priority of mine now to develop local voices, and even though he’s from this area, it’s not what I have in mind.”

Studs Terkel couldn’t disagree more. “I’m furious!” he splutters. “I made a stab at getting [Wills] back at both papers! It’s ridiculous, it’s absurd that Chicago readers are being deprived of original thinking. His references are scholarly, but the average reader digs it. He does not write down. He obviously has faith in the intelligence of his readers. He’s a natural for either paper.”

Chicago readers will have to make do with Wills’s regular stream of books, articles for Time and the New York Review of Books, and occasional local appearances. At the Printers Row Book Fair, Wills read from Lincoln at Gettysburg and lectured on it before taking questions. “A lot of people speculate about what would have happened if Lincoln hadn’t been assassinated,” said one man. “For our generation, we wonder what would have happened if John F. Kennedy had survived. What do you think?”

As usual, Wills surprised his audience. “Well, I knew John F. Kennedy,” he said thoughtfully, “and I have to say, he was no Abraham Lincoln.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mike Tappin.