Billings Gazette’s new redesign, explained

Kevin Mowbray is CEO of Lee Enterprises.

Kevin Mowbray is CEO of Lee Enterprises.

Somebody was wondering the other day why the Billings Gazette had not announced its new redesign. Good question.

The redesign rolled out on July 22, when I was in Texas, so I figured I had just missed the announcement. But going back through the paper, I see no mention of the changes that day, or the next, or on the Sunday opinion pages. Google also didn’t help.

The changes aren’t dramatic. The flag is decidedly uglier, and most of the headlines are now in a serif typeface. Bylines got smaller. Double rules now separate some stories. Friends have said the type in news stories seems larger, but the change is too subtle for me to tell.

In fact, the changes apparently weren’t made for Billings readers at all. They were made to conform to cookie-cutter standards at Lee Enterprises’ design center in Madison, Wis.

Lee has been consolidating design operations for several years in an effort to save money. Oops. I mean, “as part of our continuing focus on compelling newspaper content and design,” as a corporate email put it.

When Lee opened a design center in Lincoln, Neb., in 2013, an article in the Lincoln Journal Star described the process this way: “Each Lee paper makes local news and advertising decisions for every edition of its publications. Those are communicated to design center staffers, who place stories, arrange photos and position headlines on pages. The pages are sent back to each local office for final proofreading before they are typeset. Software allows local editors to see their pages in real time as they are being built in Lincoln.”

That did not work out so well for Lincoln. Romenesko, the essential media news source, reported in October that the Lincoln center was being closed, and 36 people were being laid off.

The changes, a corporate memo said, “will provide our local newsrooms with more time and resources to gather and produce meaningful and engaging local content.”

One of Romenesko’s commenters, Jeff Thomas at the University of Wyoming, asked the obvious question: “How, precisely, does eliminating 36 jobs at a design shop ‘provide our local newsrooms with more time and resources’?”

The closing left design centers in Madison and Munster, Ind. As the job description for a newspaper page designer position in Madison put it, “This position will produce pages for newspapers throughout the United States. You will produce assigned pages from provided plans and budgets, manage work and plate flow to meet assigned deadlines for multiple editions and publications. You will work with outside editors to ensure pages meet their expectations.”

And those quirky little design features that used to characterize America’s newspapers will join the linotype and manual typewriters as relics of the past, just like the people who did those jobs.

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