So, the new look Sunday Herald.
A bold attempt to reinvent the newspaper in a digital age ? Or an enforced repackaging driven purely by cost-cutting?
Might it actually be something in between: a fighting attempt to squeeze ingenuity and invention from a straitened low point?
Anyone who hoped there might be good news for the future of newspapers in the Sunday Herald relaunch should quietly swallow down their disappointment and look elsewhere.
What we have here is quite simple: a newspaper relieved to have survived at all.
If there is something of a web-led pogrom on print newspapers, then the Sunday Herald is the fortunate escapee forced to throw everything they could salvage onto the back of a donkey cart and head for safer territory.
Those armfuls of worldly goods might speak of quality. But they are ill-sorted and stuffed into boxes of dramatically different calibre. Even the Rolls Royce of donkey carts is still a donkey cart.
As it trundles along the road in search of a safe haven, the next port of call is likely to be just as dangerous. And all the while the refugees can’t help but look back, heavy with grief at all the treasured belongings they were forced to leave behind.
That is the real nub of the Sunday Herald’s problem. Calling themselves a news magazine is sleight of hand in an attempt to cover up the true depth of what the paper has lost.
Any relaunching news title has to be more than it has ever been before. That includes some sort of online strategy. The new Sunday Herald is not better than the old Sunday Herald. More alarmingly, it barely acknowledges the existence of the web; it’s a throwback to how newspapers were before the web existed.
Kudos to those few people left at the Sunday Herald for being thrust into a terrible situation and making a decent fist of it. There is some very good content here, with flashes of how a Scottish Sunday news magazine could look.
I am delighted the Sunday Herald still exists. With luck it will last long enough for the newspaper industry to find a new business model. Hopefully he existing audience will stick with the new-look paper. New readers, however, are unlikely to be attracted.
The greatest positive here is that the Sunday Herald could have been deleted. Instead it has only been depleted.
READ THE REST OF THIS POST FOR A MORE IN-DEPTH REVIEW
Yesteray (sun) the paper has relaunched as a “news magazine for Scotland”, with this first instalment clocking in at 96 pages.
There are no supplements. No inserts. No loose pages to fall out and it’s held together as coherent whole by what readers will consider two big staples (in correct print parlance it is wire stitched).
The entire package is approximately tabloid size and shape – or ‘compact’ as newspaper snobs like to call it, to distance themselves from the red tops – measuring 360mm x 290mm.
It seemed to have a bit of heft to it, feeling bigger than a typical weekday tabloid (or compact). Yet it remains a lot less daunting than a typical Sunday paper. In this respect I immediately liked it. This felt manageable – not a heavy pile of paper to suck up the entire day and overshadow the rest of my week demanding to be read.
The front page retained the recognisable, clean, lower case, two colour masthead. Good move.
To play to the new ‘magazine’ tag the rest of the front page was taken up with a dramatically lit, moody image of Tommy Sheridan emerging from a black background. Disappointingly, it must have been a stock image. Either that or the paper failed to trumpet a photographic coup.
Beneath the image was the understated headline, virtually the only text on the page. It grabbed my attention as a decent story – a juror in the Sheridan perjury cases posting her thoughts on Facebook.
Turning to the back, it was brighter, with more use of white space around a clever, colourful graphic of plastic football players, used to illustrate a story about the comparative strength in depth of the Old Firm. Again, there was little text.
In looks alone, at first glance the new look Sunday Herald seemed to be delivering on its promise to be more magazine-like. It won’t be winning any international newspaper design awards, but in Scottish terms it was just different enough to stand out.
For better or worse, however, it is still very obviously a newspaper. In size, in shape and in look. Oh – and also in terms of newsprint. Hints that it would be produced on high-end glossy, paper proved unfounded. This was only marginally thicker than standard newspaper fare.
So what about the content?
NEWS PAGES (2-5)
Unfortunately the first two pages inside (2-3) were a let down. Exclusives by Tom Gordon and Paul Hutcheon (both are excellent journalists) were simply too humdrum for this occasion.
Each story (one on possible dangers in merging Scotland’s eight police forces; the other claiming Scotland’s two main political parties plan to abolish a controversial transport quango) were just short of yawn-inducing, lacking real oomph or personality.
In newspaper parlance neither were ‘marmalade droppers’ (the kind of story that makes you fumble your breakfast in shock or awe). For launch day those first two pages of content had to be better than so-so.
Yet the mediocrity of the content wasn’t the worst sin on pages 2 and 3. The clumsy design and lack of visual impact were a greater disappointment. I hated the way the two stories across the top of page 2 and 3 ran into each other (both headlines and text).
I was also baffled by the strip of content running across the middle of pages 2 and 3. It was a story about the EastEnders cot-death/baby snatch plotline and the controversy it had aroused. It looked uncomfortable. Worse, being asked to follow a story from page 2 to page 4 (as was the case here), made for a thoroughly uncomfortable reading experience. It baffles me why this was done.
The EastEnders story could have been made to look more visually compelling and far easier to read if had been allowed to fill page 4-5 entirely. As it was, the design shortcoming simply drew my attention to the fact that the story itself was little more than a cuttings job, offering no real insight and adding little to the debate.
Unfortunately, we were off to a bad start. The content had the feel of being pulled together at the last minute by an under-resourced and overworked staff (probably because it was). And the design had the hallmarks of a hurriedly conceived design revamp being foisted on a badly briefed production and subbing team.
BEHIND THE HEADLINES (6-11)
Thankfully for the Sunday Herald, it hit more comfortable territory on pages 6 and 7, with an in-depth report on the untimely death of Scottish music legend, Gerry Rafferty.
With never-before seen album artwork from artist John Byrne, the first two pages of the report had a high impact look. It was kept simple, so design-wise little could (and little did) go wrong. The accompanying report, by Russell Leadbetter was well-researched, well-written and well-delivered.
An interview with John Byrne about this artwork was also insightful, while the opinions of other music scene movers and shakers as they discussed Rafferty’s best known work rounded off an excellent piece of work.
COVER STORY and COMMENT (12 and 13)
The new ‘magazine’ ethos liberated the Sunday Herald from having to find a traditional front page splash. Presumably – like Vogue, GQ (or Heat or Hello) – it can now choose to place its ‘cover story’ wherever it pleases. For launch day that was page 12. So not even a right-hand page, which was also disappointing.
Despite that Paul Hutcheon, the paper’s most reliable story finder, turned up a pearl.
The rise of social network Facebook was one of the most compelling stories of 2010 (the subject of an Oscar-tipped movie; a runaway business success; a founder named as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year).
Here Facebook met the biggest Scottish story of the year – the Tommy Sheridan perjury trial, which has left the socialist iconoclast facing jail and ruin – after a juror in the case posted a series of inflammatory remarks on the social network. A very good story.
On the opposite page was a COMMENT piece, where graceful wordsmith Iain Macwhirter tackled the issue of greedy bankers. For my money these pages were the wrong way round. Given the audience, the Macwhirter piece was too safe – almost as risk free as the very dull page layout.
Further on there is another Paul Hutcheon special (pages 16-19) about a secret bonus scheme for hospital consultants which is costing the country millions. The story was nigh on impenetrable (and most likely the product of the Freedom of Information requests with which Mr Hutcheon torments the public sector).
But the first two pages of the report had a pleasing look – with impressive use of photography and a clever graphic creating a pound sign from a stethoscope and surgical scalpel.
Next up for the big visual treatment was an interview with First Minister Alex Salmond. Black and white portraits of Salmond provided a leitmotif. First up was an evocative, poster-sized, monochrome close up of Salmond’s face which gave the opening two pages real depth and impact. A series of smaller portraits adorned the rest of the article, by Alan Taylor.
For my money the writer did an excellent job, with a gentle interview style drawing a series of genuinely penetrating answers on touchpoint issues from the First Minister. High marks again.
On WORLD NEWS a report on Sudan opts for high-impact use of multi-coloured image. Unfortunately it is queue of South Sudanese women which doesn’t really say anything.
Meanwhile renowned Environment Editor Rob Edwards is asked to assess a global spate of bird deaths. This was a missed opportunity. Instead of allowing Rob to fully explore the issue of pesticides and vanishing insect (and hence bird) populations, the space was frittered away on a Twitcher’s guide on how to tell Turtle Doves from Guillemots.
The main business story of the day was also given the big picture, magazine treatment. Unfortunately the big picture was actually a rather dreary, grey portrait, which didn’t do quite as much service to the colourful interviewee as it might have done. That aside, this was an excellent interview (by business editor Colin Donald) with the man behind the Balhousie Care Group
Beyond the business pages, the newspaper hits its fashion and food, arts books and interview sections. All of which sat reasonably comfortably – presumably because they previously formed a ‘magazine’ all of their own, so the team involved are in familiar territory.
The real question is this: how is the transition between news and business reporting, when it now shares the format with the more typical magazine fare.
I think it’s fair to say it is still a bid clunky.
Which leaves only the SPORTS PAGES
After giving a promising taste of ‘magazine’ treatment to the back page, the rest of the sport secton seems not to have noticed (or chose to ignore) the changes. That was until the reader flicked back as far as page 80 and 81 and a report on what is possibly the least-loved sport in Scotland – cricket.
Headlined The Anatomy of an Ashes hero, it is a sweetly laid out page, with an excellent image and a clever use of the wicket and a cricket ball, as well as attractive use of fact boxes and a guide to some of history’s greatest batsmen.