Houston Chronicle

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The online edition.

Full image.

The print edition.

wHAT do you do when a great client asks you how to keep their design fresh?

Well, Jeff Cohen, the editor of the Houston Chronicle who has moved the top-10 paper farther in three years than it progressed in the previous 30, asked me exactly that question earlier this year. In 2004, the Chronicle introduced a new design which I consulted on and for which Christian Schwartz produced an original and elegant Jenson body type—which to my surprise performed as a better newspaper text type than my usual favorite, Ionic No. 5.

Last year their robust Web site, Chron.com, came out with a clear new design by Theo Fels. In design terms, the paper and Web site were partners, but they weren’t twins. Both projects were Danilo Black design commissions.

Jeff didn’t need a redesign so soon, but he knew that the world is moving rapidly, readers are increasingly being distracted from daily newspapers, and what worked two years ago can quickly get out of date. After talking with him I proposed a series of workshops in the newsroom to bring the design forward.

A total of eight groups were assembled to focus on specific issues. The key issues included: how to make the Web site and print edition work together more effectively; how to make a more effective page one; how to make a paper that is more compelling for Hispanic readers; and how to extend the paper’s reach to new digital platforms.

Each group consisted of around eight staffers-some from the areas of the newsroom affected, some from departments as far away as marketing. So, about 20 percent of the newsroom was directly involved. A senior editor chaired each group, but from the beginning the idea was to operate as an “ideaocracy”—there should be no consideration where ideas came from, just whether they were good or not.

A more important rule was that there were no limits, either high or low. The only goal was to find new solutions. The understanding from the beginning nothing was too crazy to suggest. You never know—your dumb idea could be another’s inspiration.

Over two months, the groups worked together, first to agree on a brief, with goals and deliverables for each area. At the mid-term point, a working session was scheduled, with a few folks from outside the work group, such as Jeff and Susan Bischoff, the associate editor of the Chronicle, who made sure the whole effort stayed on course.

On deadline, each group presented its ideas to a larger audience from the newsroom. The result was an explosion of creative proposals, from simple design solutions to whole content strategies. It’s too early to reveal the details, but Jeff Cohen is carefully acting on each group’s presentation. Some of the ideas are being implemented now, some were declined, others are back for revisions. But each idea had real impact for change, and that is something that is sometimes hard for an individual staffer to achieve within a news organization.

While “redesign” efforts in dailies typically involve a top-down assortment of news executives and a few outside consultants, this program really stirred movement in the newsroom. It was a delightful group to work with and even jaded staffers were impressed.

For my part, I realized that this approach can make good things happen at a time when all newsrooms need to get more agile, and quickly. So, I’ve turned to another long-time client, with another star editor. With a few anecdotes from Houston, this staff jumped in quickly, and I expect report on their efforts, with similar enthusiasm, this fall.

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