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His mission: to redesign with today's readers in mind

World-famous newspaper designer Mario Garcia embraces the challenge of blending the old with the new as he helps reinvent the Wall Street Journal.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published February 20, 2006


TAMPA - He is one of the best-known newspaper designers in the world. And on this blustery day, surrounded by staffers from the Wall Street Journal, Mario Garcia is fighting another skirmish in the war to save a dying newspaper industry.

This is Garcia in his element: sketching designs on a flip chart one moment, watching as the Journal editors call up images of proposed pages on a plasma screen monitor the next.

Holding court in a sleekly modern headquarters - carved from the husk of an old Tampa Street wine storage building at a cost of $350,000 - he is pushing one of the most conservative newspapers in the country to think boldly while reinventing itself.

"Can a new column work here?" one person asks.

"What's the purpose of this page?" asks another.

Garcia and these editors aren't just squeezing the page size of the Journal's national edition by 20 percent - a move announced late last year that is expected to save $18-million annually.

They are reimagining the entire newspaper for a new, leaner era, amid reports of rising newsprint costs and dropping circulation.

"It's basically a rethinking . . . (according to) how people receive information today," Garcia said later, his Cuban accent flavoring his words. "Everything is on the table. How many sections? How much fusion with the Internet? Page-by-page, section-by-section, we are doing an absolute autopsy of the newspaper."

Journal managing editor Paul Steiger will drop only a few tidbits about the new design, including a liberal sprinkling of Web addresses and online information, an index to individuals appearing in the newspaper and a possible fashion section.

The last idea echoes notions from Garcia for improving newspapers that might horrify more traditional journalists: more celebrity news, more fashion and trend pieces, shorter and snappier stories. Just three months into a 15-month redesign project, there's much left to decide.

Still, the Journal likely won't adopt the one idea Garcia thinks all newspapers will eventually embrace: a conversion to tabloid size.

"We need to balance what our readers are used to and what they love about the paper (while) taking advantage of the fact that more and more news is communicated online," said Steiger, who worked with Garcia to bring color to the newspaper's front page in 2002 and redesign its international editions as tabloid-sized publications. "He helps us think not just about how the paper will look, but how we will get people to read it."

Compact.

That's the term Garcia uses to describe tabloid-sized papers. It's a smooth bit of wordplay that sidesteps American readers' association of tabloids with celebrity scandals and sensational headlines.

Garcia reasons that an audience raised on cable TV and the Internet needs a more portable, navigable newspaper.

"In five years, you will hit a generation of readers who don't remember life without the Internet," said Garcia, a 59-year-old father of four who enjoys youth-oriented tabloids such as the Times' tbt. "People who are coming from . . . the screen of the Internet are used to reading within the confines of a smaller place and transfer more quickly to the tabloid."

After 30 years in the business and more than 500 projects on his resume, Garcia is something of an industry legend. Among newspapers' leading designers, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn't worked with or for him. (He also serves on the National Advisory Board of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which owns the St. Petersburg Times, and will co-lead a World Tabloid Conference at the school for journalists in March).

With offices in Buenos Aires and Hamburg, Germany, he racks up 1-million frequent flier miles each year, helping shape newspapers in London; Dubai; Kansas City, Mo.; Bogota, Colombia; and elsewhere. His list of past clients ranges from Newsday in Long Island, N.Y., to the Miami Herald, the Observer in London and Liberation in Paris.

"He's one of the few people who only need a first name among (designers) like me - kind of like Cher," said Bill Gaspard, immediate past president of the Society for News Design and deputy managing editor of the Las Vegas Sun.

"Part of it is the track record; publishers love to hire the name," he added. "And when you sit down and talk with him, he's just so passionate and convincing. If I were a publisher, he could convince me to do just about anything."

Except, perhaps, to go compact.

Despite his confidence, Garcia admits a new design can't save a newspaper - or the newspaper industry - by itself.

"A redesign is like plastic surgery . . . it can change your nose, but not your personality," Garcia said. "My design will bring the story, the photos, the whole package to someone who gives it 10 seconds of attention and decides, I read or I don't read."

He has no hard-and-fast design formula across publications. But Garcia does advocate clear navigation tools, legible type, order and continuity in regular features and, finally, an attractive look.

"What we know about the reader is that he or she today is very tech savvy," he said. "They're surrounded with iPods and cameras and all of this, and the second thing is impatience. They don't give you a lot of time. They don't read the newspaper like Grandpa used to read - page by page, waiting patiently to get to sports. They look at Page 1, they see a story about Tino Martinez hitting a home run, well, (they) want to see it - immediately."

But not everyone is buying the Garcia gospel.

Alan Jacobson, president of Brass Tacks Design in Norfolk, Va., is a prominent critic of the drive toward tabloids. Arguing that journalists too often design newspapers to win awards and please themselves, Jacobson maintains that design and content are only part of the formula newspapers need to boost circulation.

U.S. newspapers make most of their revenue from advertising, where clients are charged by the size of each ad. So a move to tabloid would shrink the size of full-page ads, cutting revenue by 22 percent, Jacobson said.

"There's not a publisher in the world who will accept a 22 percent hit on ad revenues," Jacobson said. "I love Mario, but he's a (B.S.) artist. He calls these things compacts, but a rose by any other name."

Instead, Jacobson said newspapers must revitalize several areas at once, including customer service, production, circulation and marketing. It's an area where he and Garcia agree: New designs are not enough.

"The content of many newspapers is not compelling, relevant or interesting, it's important and dull," Jacobson said. "Nobody wants to read important and dull. Design in and of itself cannot save a newspaper, but it can be the galvanizing force for a much larger initiative."

Garcia shrugs off the criticism of competitors, maintaining the move to smaller newspaper formats is an "irreversible trend."

"Hard financial times lead to opportunity," said Garcia, a former Miami News reporter who still calls himself a visual journalist. "Younger readers want to read about fashion. They want to know which suit to buy. And if the Wall Street Journal doesn't give them that, somebody else will. . . . So let's take the opportunity to really do it well."

But as papers ranging from the Journal to the Orlando Sentinel and the St. Petersburg Times develop new designs, they walk a tightrope between delivering what longtime readers expect and offering a fresh look to attract a new audience.

Editors at Newsday faced widespread reader criticism after a Garcia-led 2004 redesign of their tabloid, featuring more stories on the front page and a redesigned Sunday TV book.

"The major thing we learned is that folks don't like having the furniture moved around," said Newsday editor John Mancini, who praised Garcia's collaborative methods but eventually tweaked the design, restoring the old TV book style and featuring a single story on the front page.

"The design is fine at most newspapers," said Gaspard of the Las Vegas Sun. "(But) no one is acknowledging yet that people spend 20 to 30 minutes a day with them, and we're still editing and designing this stuff as if people are spending two or three hours a day with it. Newspapers have largely been produced for the satisfaction of other journalists, and the jig is up now."

Eric Deggans can be reached at 727 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com See his blog at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media/

[Last modified February 17, 2006, 19:37:02]


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