MEDIA WATCH

A new cut from an old cloth

GEORGE BAIN June 25 1990
MEDIA WATCH

A new cut from an old cloth

GEORGE BAIN June 25 1990

A new cut from an old cloth

MEDIA WATCH

GEORGE BAIN

The Duke of Wellington seems even to me an odd bird to drag into any consideration of the redesign of the Toronto newspaper The Globe and Mail. Given that the only comment on the media attributed to him is the retort “Publish and be damned,” to a publisher demanding hush money to keep out of print mention of the duke’s dalliance with a high-priced tart, that scarcely qualifies him as an expert. But he did in his military duties make a comment in passing on the nature of communications that would be cited now as conventional wisdom.

In Portugal, in 1810, as commander of forces allied against Napoleon in the Peninsular War, he sent a sharpish note to one of his field commanders. “I request you,” he said, “to write your communications, notwithstanding that you may think it proper to send an officer; as the mode of stating a circumstance makes a difference in the meaning.” That last bit about the method affecting the meaning has a distinctly modern ring. Marshall McLuhan could have said it and, given how freely he scattered his aphorisms, may have. Certainly, media professionals have said things very much like it—Harold Evans, for one, the former editor of The Sunday Times in England, and author of a book called Newspaper Design.

Evans, discussing the function of design, dismissed the notion of it as packaging. Rather, he said, it was part of the goods. Then, in tune with Wellington’s dictum, he said: “What makes the Daily News [the New York City tabloid] the Daily News is not just the stories and pictures. If the same content were presented on a broadsheet [New York Times format], dressed in Cheltenham display type [a different style], it would no longer be the Daily News. The design cannot be separated from the product.”

That brings us, circuitously, to The Globe and Mail and its new look, assumed on June 12. Except that the process is slower, newspapers evolve like automobiles. A new model is introduced. Year by year, changes are made.

Whatever else may be said ofThe Globe ’5 new dress—more to the good than bad-traces of a pop influence are hard to find

Eventually the concept becomes incapable of further development and a new model follows.

But in recent years, some newspapers have undergone conscious personality changes, which then are reflected in a new design. One such, the London, Ont., Free Press, long a steady, unexciting, small-c conservative newspaper, has adopted more color, more graphics and more tightly written stories. The success of the splashy tabloid The Toronto Sun has been an influence. A larger one has been USA Today, television on paper, all bright colors, short stories in short sentences made up of short words, and plentiful graphics to make any quantifiable subject superficially understandable on sight.

These have been twitchy times at The Globe and Mail, especially since the early 1989 purge that removed editor-in-chief Norman Webster and managing editor Geoffrey Stevens from their posts, and was shortly to be followed by disclosure of a memorandum from publisher Roy Megarry defining changes he wanted made, and the trickling disappearance of some familiar bylines. A change in the paper, to orient it more closely, even lovingly, towards business, became a subject of speculation in the newsroom and bureaus. The rede-

sign consequently was looked at for signs it might reveal a change in news values.

Whatever else may be said of The Globe and Mail’s new dress—more to the good than to the bad, to my mind—traces of a down-market, pop influence are hard to find. The first few issues, laid out alongside 20 other Canadian, American and English newspapers, reveal a style more English than North American. Given that the English examples include The Sunday Times, The Times, the Sunday and Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Correspondent, The Independent and the Observer, this is no mean style to emulate.

A redesign of the paper was something for which William Thorsell, The Globe and Mail’s new editor-in-chief, wanted Megarry’s approval before he took the job. Among other things, he thought the paper needed a more coherent presentation and clearer identification of subject matter—local, national, international news, arts, sports, comment. To that end, one change has been to shift the editorial pages, which previously intervened as pages 6 and 7, to the back of the news section. The last page of that section now constitutes, in effect, a second front page from which the commentseeker begins and turns inward.

The new design was carried out by Tony Sutton, British-born, but employed for 14 years in newspaper and magazine design in South Africa, where Thorsell recruited him. His design makes a less busy-busy paper, now with one heading type throughout, varying only in size; more uniformity of column widths so that most of the paper is composed of sixcolumn pages; and the elimination of the old format’s heavy, funereal white-on-black reverse blocks for subheads in indexes and some column bylines. Main pictures are improved by displaying them larger and more closely cropped; still, not all secondary pictures, even on page 1, are well chosen.

So far, the new design succeeds better on some inside pages than on front, particularly in the national edition, where page 3 in early issues has been an excellent news display page. If there is a fault on page 1, it may lie in the nameplate, The Globe and Mail, which somehow looks like a hat that is a size too small for the wearer. What is not apparent to the eye, but may become an internal problem, is that the new design uses secondary headings on many stories, and so-called precedes above the heading on most commentaries. Those help give the new paper a distinctive look. The new headings, centred in their space, are clearstyled and easier to write than the old, but not so much as to compensate for a near doubling of the number of heads that need to be written. The consequent danger is that the reading of the content of stories for factual errors, spelling errors, grammatical errors and occasional incomprehensibility will suffer. Even before the change, copy editing was not one of The Globe and Mail’s strong suits. It would not make great sense to adopt a new design intended to carry an air of quiet authority and quality, and allow the design to detract from quality because of not enough people to make it work.