Newspaper's redesign includes five-column layout for news, advertising

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The Taos (N.M.) News switched to a five-column format as part of a redesign with Creative Circle that launched July 18.

"The Taos News is one of the best weekly papers in the United States," said Bill Ostendorf, president and founder of Creative Circle Media Solutions. "But their owner, Robin Martin, knew they could be even better and asked us to help them take their work up a notch."

Key elements of the redesign were to improve headlines, introduce alternative story forms, make content more relevant to readers, improve the layout and organization of the paper and make better use of their staff photographer (yes, they still have a staff photographer, and a good one). "We also worked on better planning and handling of deadlines," Ostendorf said.

But one of the biggest and most obvious changes was a switch to a five-column grid for both news and advertising.

"Every standard-sized broadsheet newspaper should be on a five-column grid," says Ostendorf. "As papers have gone to a narrower page, column widths have become too narrow, dramatically slowing reading speed. We have 100 years of research that proves that a 14-18 pica width is ideal for reading speed, but most papers today have narrow columns that are just nine or 10 picas wide."

Those narrow columns reduce reading speed dramatically because people read in phrases: "She went / to the store / to buy milk / for the cat / she found / on her porch."

When columns of text are too narrow, readers can't group words together. "You have to read one or two words at a time," explains Ostendorf. "That can slow reading time by as much as 60 percent. And that means if I have 10 minutes to spend with the paper, I might read one or two fewer stories. Over time, that can be the difference between keeping the paper or canceling."

Wider columns of text are subliminally more inviting and encourage more people to read. And narrow columns are bad for ads, too. You just can't say anything in a one-column ad and few of those ads are sold anymore. Switching to five columns is a good opportunity to rethink your rates and remake and upgrade every ad in the paper.

"Narrow columns are so dumb and another example of newspapers just killing themselves by ignoring the basics," said Ostendorf. "Publishers think it is too much work to remake all their ads, so they just continue to ruin their readership. It's insane."

But the team in Taos was very open to anything that would make the paper better. "They didn't hesitate. It was all about what was better for readers and advertisers moving forward. The whole team had a very long-range outlook, which was refreshing," said Ostendorf.

While local publishers are inundated with new things everyone says they must be doing – from creating podcasts and video to frantic social posting and reducing print frequency – Ostendorf advocates a back-to-basics approach and focusing on what you can do well.

"It's good to try new things and expand, but papers are out there worrying about podcasts, video and social media, yet they create dull headlines, invest nothing in photography, write stories that don't connect with readers and use narrow columns of text in print that dramatically reduce reading speed," said Ostendorf. "It's just brain dead stupid."

And while print readership has fallen significantly, that doesn't mean it's doomed. "Experts were positive that TV would kill radio and that VCRs would wipe out movie theaters. So don't listen to people who say print is dead. Mediums don't die," he says.

The key to thriving in today's chaotic environment is to do what you do well.

"If you can't get the content right and people have a hard time reading text, not much else matters," he said. "Dull papers lead to dull websites, dull video and dull social posts. If you aren't interesting, you're dead."

And he argues there are a lot of things publishers can do to make print better.

"Switching to five columns is a no-brainer," said Ostendorf. "That and modular ad layout alone can significantly increase readership of print. Add a push for better content, headlines and visuals and the impact on print readership can be dramatic. We should be thinking of print as our premium product and making reading the paper a great experience."

Ostendorf says papers make similar mistakes online with in-your-face advertising that interrupts reading and poor typography and design. "We're just driving readers away," said Ostendorf, whose firm also hosts more than 250 websites – including taosnews.com – and offers a full line of web software and CMS products. "Newspapers need to be much more reader-centric in everything they do – in print and online – especially since subscription revenue is going to be a much larger percentage of our revenue moving forward."

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