Canadian Commentary: Media and Culture

Postscript: Looking back on this article from the vantage point of 2002, I'm gratified to observe that many of the new features I identified as particularly noxious were dropped or redesigned within a year or two! Maybe The Globe should hire me for their focus group for the next redesign ...

New! Globe LiteTM

The Good, the Bad, and the Colour

July 1998

Well, The Globe and Mail, the paper I hate to love, has gone colour. In the process, it has redesigned itself again. Does it work?

The old design was, at heart, serious and elegant, (enough so to win awards), although there were a few problems. The first reaction upon seeing the new look has to be "ow, that hurts". I was reluctant to even read it, as if doing so would be participating in a betrayal. But after reading it for a while, the shock of change wore off, and I was able to make a more detatched judgement. Much of the change is for the worse, some for the better. Surprisingly, though, it is not necessarily the colour that is the problem.

First, the changes that are godawful:

1) The pictures of columnists. They used to be surprisingly elegant, rectangular with a variety of poses. Now the pictures are square and closely cropped, and, what is worse, it looks like they forced them to smile for the new pictures. A few (such a Rick Salutin - one of the paper's few lefties - a coincidence?) look grotesque. The result: all of the Globe's columnists look like idiots. And who wants to read a paper written by idiots? The little square pictures make it look like a cheap local paper. I had been wondering why that column by Parkinson, the paper's publisher, looked so cheesy. Now I know - he was being printed in the new format. Couldn't he tell he looked bad?

2) The back page. Once upon a time, when they had "middle kingdom" columns on the back page, it was probably the most interesting single newspaper page in the world. How the mighty have fallen. Now there's a some superficial twaddle with cheesy photographic effects at the top, with the interesting sections crammed into the bottom of the page. And please, no colours drawings. What used to be rather elegant line illustrations for the essay now look like pure kitch.

3) The editorial page. The vertical masthead cramps the entire page and wastes a huge amount of space, while the lack of masthead at the top removes the weight and distinction which an editorial page ought to have.

Next, changes which are merely bad:

1) The typefaces. They are all smaller and lighter. The elongated, almost mannerist healine font looks lightweight and generic. While the font has a certain elegance, it doesn't have that weighty, asymetrical roundness that gave the old headlines the kind of authority a serious newspaper should project. In fact, the section head font looks almost exactly the same as the Star's section head font, making the inside sections of the two papers easy to confuse.

As for the text font, it is small and crabbed, and visibly lighter - not only harder to read, but again giving the sensation of being lightweight. (The paper's demographic must be heavily weighed towards people whose eyesight is starting to trouble them. And they make it more difficult to read? Not a sound business strategy, I would think).

In addition, there are fewer and lighter dividing lines on the page. This feature is particularly noticeable with regard to individual columns, which used to be well-defined, as columns should be, but now tend to get lost on the page, resulting in a lack of definition and structure.

Obviously, the intended effect was to provide more space, presumably to compensate for the introduction of colour. Unfortunately, the effect is to create lots of wasted space on the page, while simultaneously making the text itself cramped. Also, something about the extra space makes black-and-white photographs look rather odd - and the majority of photos in the paper are still black and white.

The effects of these changes are particularly striking on the front page and the op-ed page. The front page simultaneously seems to provide less, but be cramped. The placing of "Column one" (a silly idea) on the far left, with the summaries in a column down the middle left of the page, is extraordinarily bad, crowding the page and making it impossible to give a story or picture a good spread - in the process minimizing the positive effects of colour. What gives?. Meanwhile, the tighter title leaves all sorts of empty room at the top of the newspaper. As for the op-ed page, which used to be very good, it now looks bland and structureless, a big mass of text that does not draw the eye at all.

2) The additional content is uninspiring. The re-introduction of a society column (along with what appear to be pseudo-society entertainment columns) is a particularly embarassing retrograde step. We were quite happy with simply the little "buzz" gossip columns, thank you. The "column one" feature appears to focus on "people-centred" stories, a depressing concession to a pernicious trend in journalism (the trend is particularly noticeable in the once-great New York Times). I use to read the Globe precisely because it focused on facts and analysis. If I want people, I read the Star, thank you very much. The fact that its first use was to take pot-shots at medicare does not inspire me with confidence, either (so a rich heart doctor could get faster treatment in the U.S. My heart bleeds, so to speak. What about normal people? Most U.S. citizen's insurance would give them worse treatment than we get in Canada). The Toronto page looks somewhat better, but it really needs some serious work. What about serious coverage of municipal politics beyond John Barber's column? How about a two-page spread?

As for the return of Drabble to the comics page, god help us. It reminds me of the end of the horror movie, when the zombie you thought was dead suddenly rises again, and you realize a sequel is inevitable.

Finally, the good things:

The quality of the colour photographs is very high (obvious when you compare them to the Star or the Sun). They look really good, as befits a serious national newspaper. The only danger is that this will be the first thing publishers are tempted to cut when looking for budget cuts.

While the changes had a poor effect on the front page, they had a remarkably good effect on the front pages of the inside sections, which look much better than they used to. The reason for the difference? The inside sections allow full-page banner headlines with a complimentary large colour picture. They look great, and serve as a positive argument for the move to colour. The fact that the new style is suited to large banner headlines makes the decision to cramp the front section all the more baffling.

Other good things - the banner at the top of every inside page now works better, giving the inside pages more structure. Also, the "report" sections of short news items look much more interesting, with more varied graphics and better structure. These changes improve the look and the organization of the inside pages in some ways.

Overall? The paper looks more lightweight and conventional, with weaker, smaller typefaces and much empty space. The look is exacerbated by sections which are painfully awkward: the front page, the editorial pages, and the back page, all of which should be the visually strongest sections of a newspaper. The result? The light, spacey look is reminiscent of a local Southam newspaper - surely not the right look for a serious national newspaper! And surely not the way to distinguish oneself from Conrad Black's threatened national fluff paper. The changes show that the addition of colour has potential, but I think some more work is in order.

July 9, 1998

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