Good Content, Bad Design: Not What A Struggling Newspaper Needs

When I last wrote about recent events at my former place of employment, the Vancouver Sun newspaper, I commented on the leak of a doom-laden memo from newly appointed publisher Gordon Fisher, warning of financial crisis, threatening staff layoffs, and telling employees to be “part of the solution”. Since then, 62 Sun employees have taken a voluntary staff buyout and left the paper, while Postmedia (the Sun‘s corporate owner) reported a financial loss of $112 million in its most recent three months of operation.

On July 3, Fisher issued another memo, this time to the print subscribers of the Sun and the Province, the other Vancouver daily newspaper owned by Postmedia. In full-page ads published in both papers, Fisher announced that on August 1 print subscription rates would be “adjusted” – as in, increased – and promised “platform-specific content”. He wasn’t too clear on what exactly this would look like, or how this “content” would be produced with a significantly reduced workforce. But I’m really hoping that one part of last Saturday’s print version of the Sun is not representative of what the Sun’s print readers will get in the future – especially if they have to pay more for it.

The Sun‘s July 13 Weekend Review section included an excellent story by reporter Lori Culbert, about the alleged conflicts between BC’s provincial government and the “drug watchdog” Therapeutics Initiative (TI) research agency. The online version of the story is here. Unfortunately, the design and layout of the story in the print edition was so chaotic that the story itself was almost impossible to read. Here’s the front page (pace C1) of the section, with the start of the story:

Front page of July 13 Vancouver Sun section C, with start of the Therapeutics Initiative story.

Front page of July 13 Vancouver Sun section C, with start of the Therapeutics Initiative story.

The graphic of the pills is a little large in proportion to the text of the story, and the graphic itself is a little misleading (the story isn’t just about Vioxx). However, at least the text of the story is clearly and logically arranged. Because things really get messy on the two pages inside the section (pages C2 and C3) which contain the rest of the story:

Pages C2 and C3 of July 13 Vancouver Sun C section.

Pages C2 and C3 of July 13 Vancouver Sun C section.

See if you can follow the actual story itself. The text starts about a third of the way down the left-hand side of page C2 – next to an unexplained but very noticeable empty space – and then snakes its way down and below a sidebar, jumps across to the middle of the left-hand side of page C3, and then is mostly squished in the bottom half of page C3, around a photograph and finally bouncing back up alongside another sidebar. This text layout is not only difficult to follow, but also extremely frustrating for the reader.

Now admittedly the content of this story is somewhat complicated, and additional information is helpful to clarify some of its events. However, a lot of elements are jammed onto these two pages –  and many of these elements are unnecessary, or seem to have been just randomly placed. There are two separate timelines – “A Timeline of the Therapeutics Initiative” and “The Story of Vioxx” – which confusingly, are right next to each other, starting on page C2. These could have been streamlined and combined into a single chronology, which would have been easier to comprehend and less visually overwhelming. The biographies and photographs of the TI researchers across the bottom of page C2 are interesting, but they take up a lot of space on the page, and they are not essential to understanding the events of the story. There was already a picture of Vioxx pills on page C1, so it’s unclear why another picture of Vioxx pills is plopped in the middle of page C3. And why, at the top of page C2, has space been used for a picture of Avandia pills? It’s totally irrelevant to the story to know that Avandia pills don’t look the same as Vioxx pills.

After reading this story – or, more accurately, determining what on the page was actually the story, and then reading it – I alternated between despair and anger. It made me sad that a really good piece of investigative and analytical reporting – and one of the few pieces of original local content in that day’s paper – was rendered close to unreadable by thoughtless and sloppy page design. If nothing else, it says a lot about the Sun‘s production process that a major weekend feature story could get into print without anyone noticing a large empty space on one of the story’s pages. And it made me angry that, apparently, the Sun thinks that not only will people pay to read this kind of product, but that they will happily pay even more to keep reading it. That reasoning to me is simply unfathomable.

I get that the newspaper business in Canada is having a tough time. I get that print is becoming the poor cousin in comparison to digital media, and I get that historically print-based newspapers everywhere are struggling to figure out how to successfully manage “multi-platform content”. But those realities don’t justify putting out a shoddy print product. At this point, with its financial projections as grim as they are, the Sun needs to keep every single reader it now has – and that includes print readers. Burying good content under bad design is not going to help achieve that outcome.


  1. good article, the newspaper industry globally is having a bad time, they cant cope with cyber talk, trending, or the one set of eyes theory as i call it, the pills are a bit much, they should have thrown in an assortment of different pills, put topics on them, perhaps colour code them to the text below.

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