I did something Friday that I haven’t done in at least two years: I purchased a newspaper. An actual, physical newspaper, printed with ink on newsprint.
It’s not that I have something against newspapers; it’s just that I prefer getting more up-to-date news online. I read news from newspaper websites nearly every day. But when it comes to the paper itself, as a recovering packrat who is desperately trying to recover sooner rather than later, I know that buying a paper potentially means having even more clutter I’ll have to clean up later.
But Friday was special in that it was the 30th anniversary edition of USA Today, the newspaper critics called the “McPaper” for all of its bold colors and revolutionary layout when it came out three decades ago.
I can’t really compare USA Today’s new look, which debuted Friday, with USA Today’s old look from the day before. At best, I can compare my memory of the old layout to the new. As one additional point of disclosure, I used to work for the paper’s parent company, Gannett. I have never, in any way, had anything whatsoever to do with the paper itself. The closest I got to the operations of USA Today was around 2000 when I toured Gannett’s corporate headquarters. We didn’t set foot into the USA Today portion of the corporate office, for whatever reason. I’d have liked to see it, but I wasn’t given that opportunity. I do own stock in Gannett. As I recall, I think I own about a single share, left over from a clerical error. I receive an occasional dividend that averages about a nickel every three to six months.
So I think it’s fair to say I have virtually no financial stake in the company these days.
The most striking change is the logo. The typeface is much the same: a bold Futura  font that spells out USA Today in all caps. Beneath it, in the same size lettering, but blue, is the date: 09.14.12. The graphic of planet Earth, with the North America side conveniently facing the reader is gone. To the left of the lettering, though, is a giant ball.
Each section has a giant ball. The paper kept its color coding of sections, so the front page of the A section, the news content, is still blue. The second section, Money, is still green and its corresponding big ball is green. The third section, Sports, is red, and the fourth section, Life, remains purple. The Sports and Life big balls are red and purple, respectively.
Before I saw the new paper, I saw Jim Romenesko’s post featuring an internal email from Gannett’s president which included a message from the creator of the “cool balls” concept. Here’s an excerpt of what he had to say about it:
“Just what are our balls? Well, they are what we will make of them. I believe our balls are symbols of who we are and where we’re headed. They are not stories, graphics, or illustrations. They are signposts, perhaps; reminders that offer inroads into America’s stream of consciousness.”
I don’t know about you, but that didn’t clear it up for me at all.
Seeing the paper, I like the idea and even understand it. The balls will feature icons or transform themselves graphically to support a section’s primary story or topic. The front page’s blue ball was just a giant blue ball. I hope that one will change like the others. But once you get to the Money section, the green ball has a stock ticker-style bent arrow that is pointing up to the right like an indicator of good economic news. The Sports section’s red ball is wearing a cowboy hat: the section’s cover story is about Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys. The Life section’s purple ball is transformed into a rounded leaf that is colored from the section’s signature purple to autumn-inspired orange and yellow, supporting the section’s lead story about fall television premieres.
I like the idea of using icons to support a section’s cover story: it’s a clever use of that design element. And the ability to use icons is a great way to set a mood. I can picture a check mark in a ball on election day, a ball as a Christmas ornament on Christmas-related stories, as a coin on economic stories, or even as an apple on health-related stores. The possibilities, with a little creativity, are seemingly endless.
The paper itself, which was criticized from day one for its color and bolder graphics, managed to make itself even more bold and clean than I remember. It’s a very pleasing paper to the eye, and even more pleasing today than when I last scanned through an issue. I’ve never really understood the criticism it received, other than that it’s typical criticism anyone receives when they try to do something a little different.
The website, as of Saturday morning, which is the actual 30th anniversary, tries to mimic the bolder look in the paper edition. They’ve come up with a design that almost seems to have been created for tablet devices. Images are bigger, there’s more animation, stories zoom forward when you click on them as you’d expect on a mobile site. It’s a cleaner, less cluttered design, too, which is almost always an improvement.
I have just three problems with the new design.
First, the most notable change for the paper’s look, those “cool balls,” are nowhere to be found online. This strikes me as a missed opportunity.
The second is the way stories are linked, or in this case, not linked: on the new design’s first day, one of the stories on the front page is from the money section, a review of the new Honda Accord. In the main section, there’s a link to the full story. In the section below that, the “Lead Stories” section, there’s a link to a gallery of photos of the new Accord. But when you get the gallery, there’s no link to the actual review itself: you have to close that story and go back to the top story section — or the Money section — to get to the actual review. If the gallery supports a story that’s elsewhere in the paper, there’s almost no excuse for not providing an obvious link to that story in the same window.
Likewise, another story in the Lead Stories section is raw video of police and an attorney arriving at the home of the California man associated with the anti-Muslim movie that set off riots in the Middle East. Other than a two-line caption explaining what the video is depicting, there’s no link to a text-based story about the man or the video. When the video ends, there are four links to related videos, the first of which is a video package on the riots: a reporter narrates footage the way you’d see in a television newscast. That’s fine, if you’re at home or out and about with headphones. But if I’m in a coffee shop and don’t have earbuds with me, a video is a no-go. Link me to a text story and let me get the story without disturbing those around me.
Sure, this is not only a USA Today problem: most newspapers make this same mistake. But it’s a mistake that needs to be corrected, and one that should be pointed out, particularly when a new design is unleashed without addressing it.
By comparison, my third complaint is minor, but still annoying until you realize how to get around it: when you do select a link that takes you to a text story that’s long enough to extend off the zoomed-in window, there’s no obvious scroll bar that I can find. So when you’re on a traditional desktop — yes, some people still use those, too — you must use your arrow keys to scroll down. But it doesn’t tell you that, and for whatever reason, it took me a minute to figure out why I could get the rest of the page. Until you do, you’re tempted to try to highlight the lowest paragraph and “select” the text below it to reveal it. It’s an odd way to scroll, but that works. I think they need to add a scroll bar for mouse users. There’s no reason scrolling should take much thought.
In any case, overall, the new look is a very good update. I was really eager to see how the paper (or if the paper) would actually improve on its design. It did.
As much as traditional newspapers balked at USA Today when it first appeared, many of them adopted individual design elements over the years. It’s not a revamp that would make me buy more papers, but I can’t think of anything that would do that. Provided they get the stories linked properly to video or photo galleries, I’d definitely be more likely to check out their website more often.