I’m a big believer in the maxim ‘content is king’: thrilling exposes, earth-shattering exclusives and shocking comments will, 99 times out of 100, overcome dull designs.
But where do you turn on days when you have few of the above gems, when your news and pictures list verges on the pedestrian?
This is when the ‘pavement artist’ planner is needed – grabbing the best quotes for talky headers, dramatic cut-outs to catch the eye and meaningful cross-references to draw readers in.
The Liverpool Daily Post dismally failed to do any of this on Wednesday 16 February, its tame and jumbled lay-out making the paper feel insignificant.
The best story of the day was an interview with Lord Heseltine following Liverpool’s walk-out on the government’s ‘Big Society’ pathfinder project.
Yet the splash headline ‘Liverpool: Heseltine support for Cameron’ did little to excite, not helped by a tiny cut-out of a calm-looking Michael, the story clumsily stacked above a distracting write-off.
Why were designers not given time and licence to break out from such a meek template?
A gesticulating, Tarzan-style Hezza cut-out could have dominated page one, emblazoned with a “Liverpool is a cross we have to bear” quote headline, engrossing and enraging readers.
As it was, the splash did little to sell the Post, and more than half the rest of the front page had little meaning for its intelligent readers.
‘Brits date for ex-kitten McClarnon’ was unattractively headlined across Liz’s skirt, cross-referred to a picture package lead on page eight that didn’t mention the pop star again.
Yes, she’s Liverpool-born, arguably a good face to localise the Brits, but not if you fail to carry that through to the story, not explaining what she was doing on page one.
The main left-hand boost was a great example of why you should only rarely flag up columnists when they stun you with thought-provoking copy.
The main subject was a rainy-day sci-fi meander that the page 19 sub struggled to headline: ‘Twitter tsar to boost morale for austerity cuts survivors’. Reinterpreting this muddle as ‘There’ll be no journalists after the Apocalypse’ became a cringing page one tease.
The strap boost above the masthead was clearer, although it used too tiny an image of the business pull-out and repeated the only readable headline about the Lambrini boss’s £10m dividend.
The two small sports boosts were fine, if contrary: from the sublime ‘LFC teenage goalscoring phenomenon poised for Euro tie’ to the ridiculous ‘Ruthless Rovers score three to clip Owl’s wings’.
But whose idea was it to use orange subject headers? The randomly placed ‘columnist’, ‘arts’, ‘politics’, ‘regional’ ‘sport’ and ‘contents’ added little to page one.
Design idiosyncrasies continued with an annoying tendency to squeeze headlines onto pictures again on various inside pages, resulting in cramped lay-outs like this on page six.
One firm style decision was ‘no borders on main pictures’ which worked for dark images, but looked like a needless cut-out because of a white background on page five.
A less-firm decision was a frame-style half border around secondary pictures; I say ‘less-firm’ because this happened on pages two, three, six, 12, 16, 17 and 10 of the ‘Business’ pull-out, but not on eight, 14, or nine of ‘Business’, nor on 11 where it instead appeared on the main picture.
Some of the above styles may have worked if the Post had enough pages to get a flow going. But in a 32-page main book it went nowhere, not helped by a screaming ‘WANTED SCRAP GOLD’ full-page ad on page seven, an aptly-named ‘diversions’ puzzles collection on page 11 and a pointless New York Times-style ‘comment and analysis’ section on page 15.
Re-reading my 600+ words so far you can see what the subtitle of this blog is getting at… I’ve hardly mentioned content because of irksome design inconsistencies.
The page three lead on the demise of a ‘groundbreaking’ arts group was interesting, but its layout was so intent on using stylish pictures that the sub forgot to ask the reporter why there was no mention of the amounts of money spent, needed or axed, (subs still do edit, don’t they?).
This shyness of figures happened again on the page nine lead revealing how Liverpool’s second tallest sky-scraper had been approved but might never be built – no hint of the costs in 25 pars.
Other than these half-enticing stories and the aforementioned Heseltine splash – a fine read if poorly projected – there was little else to shout about.
Perhaps it had something to do with – sorry to mention it again – the jarring orange used for sub-headings, pull-out quotes and sub-section titles throughout. Why orange?!
There were 57 reports on 16 news and features pages, 31 on seven pages of sport and 57 in 16 pages of ‘Business’, plus spreads on TV listings and race cards.
Not the worst story count, but evidently not enough to stop dramatic sales declines, the Post recording minus 28pc in the first half of 2010 and minus 13.2pc in the Latest ABCs.
The Trinity Mirror title, costing 60p, now sells just 8,868 a day, perilously close to the 7,000 sales level that saw sister morning the Birmingham Post go weekly just over a year ago.
This, I predict, will be the fate of the Liverpool Daily Post in 2012, perhaps at least providing the pagination for its genteel style to shine, and hopefully seeing it follow the Birmingham business title’s subsequent climb in sales, the latter now selling 11,935 a week.