Does a city of three million people need four daily newspapers? In an age of media concentration, where newspaper cartels buy up every paper in town, only to shut down all but one, maybe that’s an impolitic question. Of course we need a diversity of voices in the newspaper trade. It’s something of a motherhood, or parenthood, issue among media critics. But, counter-intuitively, there may indeed be a case in which more newspapers do not immediately lead to more diversity. That’s true at every level, from graphic design to writing to politics. A lesson we may learn from this case: Design is not value-neutral.
In October 1998, Toronto – Canada’s biggest city (and, according to its residents, the most important) – saw the début of the National Post, the newest entrant into what is always described as the most “competitive” newspaper “market” in North America. The existing players:
Further, Toronto is overrun each Thursday by two “alternative newsweeklies,” Now and Eye, the latter owned by Torstar and struggling fruitlessly for readers, credibility, and ad sales from day one. (A typical Now is three times the size of an Eye.) Every two weeks, the shoddiest paper in town, the gay and lesbian biweekly Xtra (bi and lesbian gayweekly? gay and bi lesweekly?), plonks onto downtown stoops. A dozen or more publications in languages other than English flit just below the anglophone media radar. Finally, the glossy monthly magazine Toronto Life speaks for the dumb rich.
The three dailies polarize the Toronto area along class lines, a fact no one is in a hurry to acknowledge: Torontonians, and Canadians generally, are eager to prop up the consensual hallucination that we have achieved a classless society. Exactly how Toronto stratifies itself in newspaper readership is easy to see if you troll around town buying cups of coffee. Our hundreds of donut shops are strewn with the Sun, along with an occasional copy of the Star; mainstream middle-class coffeeshops in nice residential districts are dominated by the Star, with a small but undeniable Globe contingent; superswanky, hypercool cafés in fashionable neighbourhoods are a Globe-only territory, except when Gitanes-smoking habitués are found reading Now, Wallpaper
<asterisk>, Vogue, or À la recherche du temps perdu. In the first two cases, a definite upward-mobility trend can be discerned. But in general, people know their place and stay there, like the obedient, (unwritten-)law-abiding Canadians they are
For over a year, rumours ran rampant that Southam, one of the various holding companies of Conrad Black’s media empire, would do the unthinkable and launch a new daily newspaper. (“Another one? We’ve already got three!”) You didn’t need to work in the biz to hear those rumours, since another hatpin stabbed at the puffery of the Canadian class system manifests itself in Frank, a pulpy, satirical fortnightly out of Ottawa that one could compare to Private Eye if the latter were put together by clueless Windows tinkerer-geeks who manage to misspell even the names of luminaries they lampoon.
Everyone reads Frank but few admit to it. Frank’s regular “Remedial Media” column kept the country abreast of Black’s plans for the new paper, and of the bricks being shat over at the seigneur-heavy executive boardroom of Globe and Mail, which views its MOPE readership as some kind of hereditary right. (You could almost hear the embolisms popping when Black later bought the Financial Post, a struggling daily, from the Sun with the unstated but obvious intention of folding it into the new paper.)
A recent Toronto Life cover blurb deadpanned WAR MEASURES AT THE GLOBE AND MAIL. It’s true. The Globe underwent yet another watered-down redesign (see below) and introduced what the editor-in-chief had always maintained would never besmirch his august organ: Colour. Thomson Corp., Frank told us, went so far as to buy up billboard space to squelch Black’s advertising plans. But the correct title of the Southam paper did not and still does not matter. Frank always refers to noted gastronome Conrad Black as Tubby Black, so it stood to reason that his newspaper Frank should call the paper the Daily Tubby. And by this name shall ye know it.
Come fall, Black’s prudent decision to book billboard space under assumed names came to fruition, and the country was festooned with ads for the forthcoming National Post. Tedious, laboured, and overarching, the ad campaign showed a Before and an After picture with the legends PRE and POST. Pitch blackness and a lighthouse, a bus pass and a passport, that sort of thing. Really classy, really subtle. The big day came on October 27, 1998, and boy, were we underwhelmed.
Let us now turn back the wheels of history. In 1995, the Globe and Mail underwent a redesign. I was a busy design writer for the paper’s Fashion & Design section at the time, hacking out serious articles on graphic and industrial design amid rewritten press releases on fashion and interior decorating, and I wrote a criticism of the new design in the pages of the selfsame paper.
Few readers remember the Globe’s slipshod grey mishmash of the ’80s, and once the paper undergoes its urgently-needed stem-to-stern redesign at some future time, few readers will remember the current design either – in 1990 or 1995 variants. This is one baby that should have been chucked out with the bathwater.
The problem, in a nutshell, is one of tinkering with what was a bad idea in the first place, and here we stumble into a philosophical argument. Newspapers, as quiet, august reporters of the Truth, have a long history and can evoke a certain proprietary affection from readers. If you believe that the Grey Old Ladies of newspapers – the New York Times, the Times of London, the Wall Street Journal, et al. – represent a dignified and sombre approach to reporting plane crashes, deficit mania, sexually-abusive priests, and other lurid, overblown tidings of the day, then you’re going to oppose any kind of graphical updating on principle.
If, on the other hand, you recognize that papers exist to report the news of the present, you’re apt to reject the idea of using a newspaper’s design to evoke and perpetuate the past. And you’d be right.
Last year Frank reported that, at the outset, a wide range of options for the Globe’s redesign were on the table, including transforming the paper into a colour tabloid. Lest this immediately conjure images of various riffraff newspapers with the word Sun in their titles, consider the Village Voice and New York Newsday, two colour tabloids that bring more than enough sophistication and intelligence to the format to keep you from being embarrassed to read them in public.
The Globe’s 1990 design was heavy on Klass with a capital K, with lots of old (and old-looking) typefaces and a thoroughly conventional, “dignified” layout. The desire to assert Klass was mirrored in editorial priorities, too: Sportswriting was relegated to a three-page gulag symbolically tethered to the arse end of arts coverage, while both sections paled in comparison to the almighty Report on Business. Even the paper’s vaunted style guide flubs significant details: Writers are obliged to use italics for pop-song titles (who else does that?) but forbidden to use them for the names of periodicals. The world, in effect, was forced to conform to the paper’s narrow, business-first look and feel.
The new design, editor-in-chief William Thorsell told us, was “intended to improve the readability of the Globe... and to raise design standards in their own right.” Raise them to 1950s standards, perhaps. If the Globe’s advertisers can use a wide range of fonts without suffering in legibility, and if the paper itself can use almost microscopic but still readable Univers type for, say, the names of publishers of books being reviewed, why was an age-old stereotypical newspaper font, Clarion, chosen as the new body typeface? Why not pick a more lively, unconventional, but still readable font?
In the immortal words of Miss Shirley Bassey, the Daily Tubby is all just a little bit of history repeating. The paper, designed by the well-respected Lucie Lacava, wears its heart on its sleeve, and that heart pumps cold Black blood. This is a paper at odds with itself: An “underdog” published by a Canadian too baronial to actually live in Canada, the paper’s writing and design bespeak an insecurity typical of the brittle Toronto middle-class, who are too polite to embrace the all-out greed of Tories but too bourgeois to embrace the all-out apologia of socialists.
As is standard practice today, the Tubby uses custom fonts. According to Lacava, they are: Matthew Carter’s Miller, for features, news features, columns and text; “Miller Display Light and Miller Display Semi-Bold Italic were custom-designed for the Post.” For the nameplate, Post Serif by Jim Parkinson. For news and brief heads, Post Sans, also by Parkinson.
With this palette, the Tubby tends to look like a watered-down cross between the Globe and a quality European paper. (Quelle surprise.) The typographic culprits are vertical stress and serifs. In a graphic age where anything is possible, restraint is the greatest luxury, and the Tubby wants you to know you’re coddled hip-deep in the whore’s-drawers upholstery of a ’78 Caddy. Oh, the contradiction. The letterspaced, all-caps nameplate is too discreetly assertive after the manner of brass plaques affixed to businessmen’s clubs. The tiny article blurbs beneath the nameplate, not at all comparable to the British quality newspapers Conrad Black owns and may even read, deploy thin rules and italic type in an effort to ask you to kindly read these really very vital stories. (It could be worse: The Star’s pedestrian skyboxes look like something out of Microsoft Word.)
The interplay of Miller and Post Sans in headlines builds a curious kind of tension and release. There seems to be an attempt to concentrate visual interest equally. Wide spreads use Post Serif and Miller, while narrower columns use the much bolder Post Sans. Narrower columns seem to apologize for being so narrow (an AMC Gremlin to the rest of the paper’s Sedan de Ville) by overcompensating with halbfett type. Section nameplates, some of which are typeset in grey or in colour, similarly apologize for being so damn big. But the effect runs counter: Post Sans headlines grab more attention than anything else. I get hung up on the bizarre lowercase g, which could not possibly have derived from the same wellspring as the g in Interstate by Tobias Frere-Jones. The font seems laboured in its effort to recall the futurism of the past, and nothing is older than yesterday’s futurism. A typeface I despised while growing up because the local paper had used it for nearly 40 consecutive years, W.A. Dwiggins’ Metro, could have succeeded beautifully here. Metro is retro, and convincingly so; Post Sans can’t even come up with an Art Deco name for itself.
A complaint I voiced about the 1995 redesign of the Globe and Mail concerned its overabundance of rules (“more horizontal lines than a Venetian blind”). A bit of a philosophic divergence is necessary here. If newspapers are to survive, they must be willing to throw out old ideas, like festooning every pica of the page with type. Think about it: When was the last time you ran a squib from a wire service to avoid leaving an empty chunk in your paper? (Yesterday? This morning?) The Roger Black school of design, which I do otherwise respect very much, requires as much copy as possible and tight heads and photos and captions and rules and dotted lines all over the place. It works fine for Entertainment Weekly, but is anything even remotely like this really the way to go in a newspaper?
A consequence of the mad rush to fill space is the reader’s difficulty in differentiating one article from all the others adjoining it. It’s sort of like the problem of colouring a map so that no country borders another country of the same colour.
The reader is expected to take in half or all of a huge page (twice as huge if you lay out a double-truck spread on your kitchen table) and navigate through the information. In the online demimonde, information architects like User Interface Engineering and Jakob Nielsen spend a lot of time working out structures that will actually make sense in an information-dense Web page, yet today’s newspapers look much the same as they did a hundred years ago. We can’t chalk up the need for online information architecture to differences in browser display or the fatigue caused by reading from a CRT all day. This isn’t a fad you can shrug off. The introduction of seatbelts made the inadequacies of unsafe cars clear once and for all; the difficulty in navigating information online has made all the other navigational difficulties equally clear once and for all. Systematic clarification of information is a basic need of the 1990s, and an old medium like newspapers ignores this new reality at its peril.
The Tubby packs every available word onto the page. Vertical rules are single, but horizontal rules are triple. There’s a marked tendency toward dogleg layouts, with, say, a big photo occupying three columns and a one- or two-column text block underneath it mixed in with neighbouring stories. You the reader are expected to follow the flow of information (of several kinds: picture, caption, head, subhead, byline, dateline, text, jump) the way one follows water flow in complicated old pipes on This Old House. A tidy rectangular block of text and graphics, while boring as hell, at least does not carry the disadvantage of forcing to reader to go on an orienteering expedition to find the rest of the story.
(The funny thing is that the paper is known to sacrifice copy for design. A television documentary rolled footage of tough-as-nails court columnist Christie Blatchford’s foul-mouthed mutterings to herself when she was forced to remove a handful of lines from her column to avoid exceeding the space on a jump page. There might have been room on the page facing the jump, but since that would be the even-numbered page directly following the odd-numbered lead-in, that idea was a non-starter.)
Matters are made worse by the asymmetry of rules: Triple rules seem more important or louder than single rules. I never had the impression that the article above or below the triple rule had anything to do with the one I was reading (the rules worked here), but I often got the impression that vertical rules were simply column demarcators, ... la Roger Black. The rules don’t all join up, either – another case of lightness for lightness’ sake, and a throwback to hot-metal typesetting when rules didn’t join up for technical reasons. I loved old books typeset that way, but the Daily Tubby is not an old book set in Monotype. The rules, too, seem to apologize – for being different from each other.
The paper is ineptly put together, with misspellings and typos that are dead giveaways of the writers’, editors’, and designers’ newness to all-Macintosh production and the exacting rules of the language they are paid to write. Nice to see a + as the first character of a paragraph, heartiest for hardiest in a story about Arctic taxicabs, the misplaced commas of the neurotic writer who just never got the hang of the Chicago rules (“American musicologist, Gerald Eskalin, who has testified in similar cases...”), the interjection “well” written without a trailing comma, names of people addressed written without preceding commas, rock ‘n’ roll (i.e., rock <opening single quote>n’ roll), an unwillingness to indent paragraphs in centre spreads, impact as a verb, temperatures listed as 18C rather than 18°C (only Kelvin measurements drop the degree sign; type Shift-Option-8 to get it, kids), grilled Portobello mushroom andwich, no understanding of the plural possessive, garbled date formats (“Sunday April 6 1997” vs. “February.5, 1998”), risible incompetence in rendering Internet addresses (chaptersglobe.com.com), an actual neutral apostrophe ('), and misspelled proper names. No fewer than three photographs in the first month’s production run were visibly pixelated. Even teenagers trading nudie snapshots over AOL can do better than that.
The editorial slant is five degrees to starboard of Pol Pot. The Tubby’s obsession with homosexualism, to use Frank’s quaint locution, is extreme. Headline concerning an exaggeratedly butch figure-skater: “I am not gay,” Stojko says. Columnist Mark Steyn, on gays in the British cabinet: “After his success with ’the people’s Princess,’ Tony Blair is now offering Britons the people’s queens.” Apparently the word gay itself was briefly banned in favour of homosexual, which was deemed more correct and accurate, in the way, presumably, that Negro and Jap are more correct and accurate. A story on Elton John’s “lover” David Furnish manages to call him Furness in one photo caption and Furnish in another.
Line-art illustrations of columnists have come under sharp rebuke, and deservedly: They’re not editorial illos, they’re Rorschach tests, the pen-and-ink equivalent of spray-painting REDRUM on a wall. There’s an unending thread of tweeness throughout the paper that galls me as much as the suit-of-tweed look of the Globe, the Times Roman nondesign of the Star, and the Letraset throwback that is the Sun.
Heavy use of italic subheads all over the place throws Miller’s extended serifs, similar to ITC Century’s, into sharp focus, like vinyl hotpants accentuating track-marked legs. Working in sympathy with the array of rules on each page, these filigrees bespeak middle-class concepts of finery. Paul Fussell, in Class: A Guide Through the American Status System (Summit Books, 1983), a bitchy, meandering screed not unlike this one, points out that middle-class people tend to think upper-class people dine by candelabra while decked out in suits, elbow-length gloves, and hats. A form of psychological projection is at work: We don’t trust our words alone to carry weight, so we will add respectability with the BeDazzler of italic serifs. Notice me! I’m classy!
Now, Conrad Black isn’t middle-class, but his editors are. The trend is most apparent in the Weekend Post, the two-part colour supplement running in the Saturday paper. It’s a Robin Leach holdover that shrieks its creators’ insecurities like the violin arpeggios of the Psycho shower scene. There’s a review of whatever house a formerly rich person has put up for sale lately, Mont Blanc Boutique ads, an evaluation of “First-Class Muffins” (actually, coffee and muffins at airports). It’s just the sort of thing insecure journalists working on contract and writing for an undefined, amorphous audience that literally did not exist before October 27, 1998 – and might not exist now – would revert to. When in doubt, do what you think the New York Times Magazine would do, not that you can actually afford to buy it every week, and not that you’re even remotely that good.
Or maybe these editors are tipsy with power. The Tubby’s lèse-majesté culture was glimpsed, Tell-Tale Heart–style, in delicious detail in an article on actor Joseph Fiennes. “Large-circulation outlets such as the Weekend Post are customarily granted personal audiences [sic], but there’s been an administrative mix-up – no time was set aside for a one-on-one, so it’s necessary to arrive hours early, camp out, and beg the publicist for mercy.” This could by no means be seen as an echo of the dilemma facing Finbarr O’Reilly, a young gun hired from the Globe, where, a source holds, he wanted to cover Kosovo but was stuck interviewing Dave Matthews. The day I visited the newsroom, an interview with Überbobbysoxer Alanis Morissette for a short item on beauty tips was delegated to O’Reilly, but the goddess’s publicist wasn’t biting. (I wonder why.) An interviewette with Alanis, unrelated to make-up, eventually ran. Quite an adequate interviewette, really, but here I side with the publicists. The Tubby people don’t know what they’re doing, and I don’t see why anyone should have to suffer while they learn on the job.
The Tubby is playing at what it thinks a quality paper should be. It’s afraid to rethink the medium to differentiate itself clearly from its only credible competition, the Globe and Mail. We’re not talking grunge fonts here, just something based in an intelligent assessment of what a new paper could rather than should do. We expect this from Conrad Black, who talks a fine line about journalistic non-interference but, if reports are to be believed, simply delegates the rule of the iron fist to other fists. The Tubby, like the Globe, could look great, read great, be great if people doing the actual work had license to design and write a paper they themselves would want to read rather than a paper some mistily-defined target demographic will buy.
The ’90s have seen an explosion in the use of graphic design to define an audience and subculture, and even to exclude every other audience and subculture. Think of Wired, Ray Gun, or the Canadian laughingstock known as Shift and the Report on Business Magazine, one of the Globe’s own subsidiaries. Lucie Lacava has tried her best, but old leather will take only so much of a shine. The National Post makes Toronto’s national newspaper look (and read) positively smart, sensible, and contemporary by comparison. The Daily Tubbydoesn’t know what it is and barely knows what it isn’t . It’s a ship adrift in a very crowded sea. But, God, is it classy.
Disclosure: I waited five months for a response to a pitch to the Tubby to edit a design section, and was eventually interviewed for an editorial job at the Weekend Post which, of course, was given to someone else. (In retrospect, I got off easy.) I acknowledge in advance, but deny, accusations of sour grapes.
Speaking of which: The Tubby wasn’t about to take my criticism lying down. Design received this letter:
With regard to the self-serving hatchet job carried out on Canada’s new national daily National Post in the last Design issue. Constructive criticism is always valuable but the sneering put-downs by “design writer” Joe Clark and the grandstanding by the left-leaning editor of Design shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Um, then why write a letter? And if the editor’s left-leaning views are germane here, perhaps I should have referred to the paper as the National Socialist rather than the Daily Tubby.
The fact is, the reception given the National Post by readers, media analysts and many journalists and designers has been overwhelmingly positive. [Society for News Design] judges gave their opinion recently when they handed the newspaper 28 design awards based on only two months of publication. Who is right? All these informed professionals or our two heavily biased cohorts out to ridicule a newspaper they repeatedly call the Daily Tubby?
Quick conceptual recap here: I don’t work for the SND. Neither, presumably, do its judges. They’re entitled to their opinion, and you’re entitled to mine, to paraphrase Hissyfit.
Granted we suffered some embarrassing typos in the early days as a new staff with a new production system grappled with a new design and nine printing sites in four time zones across Canada. I don’t recall other design critiques stooping to listing individual typos and insulting the editors.
The National Post has established itself in very quick time and struck a chord with the many people who have said they like the content and the design, which allows a lot of information to be presented quickly and succinctly. To quote the April  issue of Toronto Life magazine: “The National Post has delighted us with its clear, even-keeled coverage ... and continually exceeds our expectations.”
Time to clear up some deliberate falsehoods. The Toronto Life story was written in sarcasm and lampooned the pen-and-ink illustrations for columnists. The quote above is selective: The paragraph actually says “The National Post has delighted us with its clear, even-keeled coverage of news that matters. Where else but in its boisterous pages could we have been so well-informed? So captivated? Especially by such uplifting fare as its book reviews (so many wonderful books!), its reporting of the latest newspaper circulation numbers (such success!) or its thought-provoking insights on such luminaries as Chile’s General Pinochet (so misunderstood!).” The article then goes on to provide rather more representational and fair-minded illos of the paper’s columnists than one would expect, though the depiction of right-wing finance assailant Diane Francis astride twin mythological beasts is rather apt. (Are the beasts who feel the tang of her whip named Truth and Polity?)
Let’s see how the Post and archrival the Globe and Mail are faring after a year. Then, perhaps, we can see a more professional review in a Design magazine [sic] that demands higher standards and more objectivity than it obviously does now.
Deputy Managing Editor, National Post
There’s no such thing as an objective review. It’s good to see Watson finally coming out with proof of the National Socialist’s animus against the Globe. But tell me this: What’s more important, bigger numbers than the Globe’s or a better paper?
Updated 2002.05.18, 2007.03.19
Originally published in Design, the Society for News Design quarterly, Spring 1999